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Formula for a brilliant Citadel hit: 6 wives of Henry VIII, + Spice Girls + #MeToo

The spirited new musical SIX has catapulted onto the mainstage of the Citadel, pausing here on its way to an official opening next year on Broadway (where the theatre is already booked).

SIX began its life in the midst of a poetry class at Cambridge in 2017. Toby Marlow had just been awarded a spot in the Edinburgh Fringe and had no idea what to put into it. There, in the middle of a class on the poet Blake, he had a blinding flash – a Spice Girls kind of stage show with lights, music, production, and an appealing cast of young women. And here’s the kicker – it would be based on the six wives of Henry VIII. He called his co-writer Lucy Moss and SIX was born. Apparently it was pretty well fully formed at birth. The original production sold out at the Fringe for the entire run.

Less then a year later, it was selling out houses and playing to rapturous reviews in London’s West End. That’s where Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran saw it and hoping to repeat the astounding success of Hadestown (which also went from here to Broadway) invited SIX to use the Citadel’s first-rate facilities as a tryout for Broadway – and to provide a sure-fire hit for his own audience. This is the only production of the musical to be seen in Canada. It runs on the mainstage through November 24.

The spectacular, high energy pop-concert confection certainly lives up to its advance hoopla.

Here’s the story: Fed up with being famous only for being married to Henry, the spurned ladies meet in some celestial Elysium to make the case that they have a voice and a story of their own. Calling themselves the “Ex-wives” (and backed by a small but mighty instrumental quartet known as the “Ladies in Waiting”) they bound onstage turning the old children’s chant, “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” into a ringing call for a new appraisal for our “woke” times.

Hollers one Queen: “Edmonton – are  you ready?”

“Yeah!” cheers the audience.

Queen:  “Aw come on. ARE YOU READY?”

“YEAH!” is the reply.

These sexy royals don’t have to worry about making noise. In about 90 seconds, they had the generally sedate opening night Citadel audience screaming like Deadheads at a Grateful Dead concert.

The feisty females launch into an edgy, comical, often cynical and bitchy attack on Henry, history and subjugation, turning it into a celebration of female empowerment. The whole exercise is staged as a contest to see who was the most abused of the six, and these ladies get down and dirty to win.

“What hurts more than a broken heart?” wails Jane Seymour.

“A severed head,” retorts Anne Boleyn.

The music has a girl-band hipness lacquered over a renaissance sensibility, but creators Moss and Marlow vary their pace and styles to keep you musically involved. The music is catchy and lyrics pack considerable weight. Individually the ladies could stop the show. Taken together they are an exuberant blast of nonstop verve. They’re having so much darn fun that resistance is futile. Despite the internal sniping, when occasion demands, the ladies band together to provide an impressive you-go-girl vocal back-up for each other.

The talented cast gets their chance to sell each of their moments in the spotlight with a summing up of their own story. Adrianna Hicks, as a stubborn sharp tongued Catherine of Aragon, fires up a persuasive and fiery song-and-dance number in which she tells us she wouldn’t accept being banished to a convent because, “She wouldn’t look good in a wimple.”

Winnipeg’s Andrea Macasaet is a funny-sexy imp as Anne Boleyn, lighting up the stage and certainly demonstrating what Henry saw in her. Don’t Lose Ur Head, she sings. Sorry, too late.

Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour sells her tale of a wasted but faithful love in a soulful power ballad – Heart of Stone. WOW! This gurrl has the pipes of Adele and a range as wide as the North Sea. Brittney Mack is Anna of Cleves, the German princess, who complains that her marriage foundered because Henry found her ugly. We catch her on her way to a sad lonely life – the poor girl was banished to a sumptuous palace to live out her days.

Samantha Pauly’s Katherine Howard – “…the least relevant Catherine,” chides Aragon – laments her lack of profile. She was very pretty, and in a rueful, slinky number (All You Wanna Do) she outlines a lifetime of abuse. She was beheaded on the grounds of treason, for committing adultery. Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr, who was something of a female activist, delivers a passionate torch song of lost love. She outlasted the King.

The choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille is fabulous – peppered with moves inspired by the Supremes, The Temptations and The Spice Girls. Gabriella Slade’s costumes are punk variations of Tudor styles.

As the 85-minute show draws to a close, the production demonstrates why it has come to be regarded as more than a powder-puff entertainment. What emerges is that despite the razzle dazzle these women were victims who were spurned, murdered and suffered unspeakable abuse along the way.

At the end, the ladies decide they’re much better than their single word definition in the nursery rhyme and, together, definitely better than the royal jerk who spectacularly unfriended them.

They cheekily suggest we pull out our cameras. “You’re gonna want to photograph this one,” they proclaim as they mount the killer finale in a blizzard of golden confetti.

Get your tickets early for this one.

Photos by Liz Lauren, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater