The six wives of "Six the Musical." Photo by Joan Marcus
Went to a pop concert Wednesday night and a history lesson broke out. Verily, “Six The Musical” is both – a lot of high-octane pop music and a little Tudor history.
Broadway San Diego is presenting the national tour of “Six,” which was written by two British students, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of 2017. It premiered in the West End two years later and on Broadway in 2020 just before COVID-19 sent everything to hell in a handbasket. It would officially open there in October of 2021.
That’s the history of “Six’s” creation and development. The 80-minute musical’s own history – or “her-story” as its cast members call it – is that of the six wives of King Henry VIII, amped up sonically and recounted with a contemporary sensibility and lyrics to match. You know what? It works. “Six” is a thoroughly engaging show with palpable pop music hooks, humor and even a few moments of pathos.
The six wives subjected to the narcissism and cruelty of Henry VIII are presented as pop divas channeling icons from Beyonce and Adele to Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande. After a kinetic opening in which they convey the premise of the evening (“Ex-Wives”) – that each one will have her turn in song to show that she was most abused in her royal marriage – the wives’ proceed in historically chronological order to do just that.
Catherine of Aragon (Khaila Wilcoxon) gets things started, all but demanding in her “No Way” number to be crowned most ill-treated. She’s followed by Henry’s Wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn (Storm Lever), who even reluctant history students know suffered the unkindest cut of all from her husband – she was beheaded. Lever’s “Don’t Lose Ur Head” is obviously sardonic but undeniably defiant too. Lever, seen at the Old Globe in “Almost Famous” and more prominently in the theater’s 2021 staging of “Hair,” is a needle-sharp comic presence throughout the show.
The transition to Natalie Paris as Jane Seymour, Wife No. 3, brings a change of pace. The longing and forlorn ballad “Heart of Stone” may be “Six’s” best-known tune, and Paris, who otherwise during the evening is quite funny herself, sings the royal heck out of it.
Anna of Cleves was the wife that Henry recruited from outside England, though when the German-born Anna met him face to face, he rejected her emphatically. Not as pretty as her portrait, the tyrant’s thinking went. As though giving Henry and superficial men everywhere a middle finger and having a ball doing it, Olivia Donalson romps through “Get Down.” And get down she does. My personal favorite queen moment of the night.
Oozing sex appeal as Katherine Howard, Courtney Mack’s “All You Wanna Do” is a fitting bookmark to “Get Down,” also indicting Henry VIII as a user when it came to his wives and women in general. Mack, with her Ariana Grande high ponytail in motion, makes it more sensual than incensed.
Catherine Parr was Henry’s sixth and final wife – he died a year before she did. Gabriela Carrillo’s “I Don’t Need Your Love” is a rebuke of the king, who forced her to marry him when she was in love with Thomas Seymour, a brother of Jane’s. Before her song, Carrillo’s Parr suggests that a competition to see who was most victimized is a wrongheaded idea. Which it is. The attempt to transform the tone of the show into an empowerment statement doesn’t fully come off, however. Before you know it, it’s back to the flash with the ensemble performing “Six,” a percussive finale with a flamboyance that would gladden the hearts of Vegas regulars.
Neither being conversant in British history nor enamored of power pop is necessary to enjoy “Six.” It’s easy to like and, for some, to love. My niece and her best friend are already planning to see it again.
“Six the Musical” runs through July 9 at the Civic Theatre downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.