Where: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare
When: through Aug. 4
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Judging by the screaming, cheering audience on opening night, the North American premiere of “Six” is the hottest show to hit Chicago Shakespeare Theater this season.
Created by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss in 2017, when they were at Cambridge University, the musical made its debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, then went on to tour the United Kingdom and light up London’s West End. On this side of the pond, the cast, directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage, is mostly American.
But this is no ordinary musical. Instead, it’s an 85-minute rock concert uniting the six queens who were the wives of Henry VIII, with back-up by the four-woman band called Ladies in Waiting.
The idea of repackaging 16th-century history as contemporary pop culture is a clever way to appeal to the young, and although “Six” doesn’t match “Hamilton” for complexity, it opens the door to portraying the six ex-wives as proto-feminists in the #MeToo era. Tired of being distinguished just by the device “divoced-executed-died-divorced-executed-survived” and of people arguing about who was the most important wife, they’ve decided to hold a competition to pick who suffered most in her marriage to Henry VIII. That queen will be crowned the leading lady of the girl group.
After the big opening number, “Ex-Wives,” each queen gets a solo to make her case for having the worst time. Marlow and Moss have cannily aligned each queen with pop singers of our time in an updating that extends from their musical styles to the sensational costumes by Gabriella Slade that combine Tudor shapes with the divas’ signatures.
First up, with “No Way” and shades of Beyoncé (and a stunning headress), is Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon, the staunchly Catholic Spanish import who was married to Henry VIII the longest (24 years) and refused to accept it when he wanted to have the marriage declared invalid. She’s followed by petite Andrea Macasset as the flirtatious, fun-loving Anne Boleyn who sings “Don’t Lose Ur Head” with the spunk of Lily Allen and repeatedly brings up the loss of her own as she angles to be the winner. Third is Abby Mueller as the relatively demure Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth. She claims she was “the only one he truly loved” and pours out her heart Adele-like in the torch song “Heart of Stone.”
The pace changes with the hilarious German rock parody “Haus of Holbein,” a group number describing how Henry chose German princess Anna of Cleves based on a portrait painted by Hans Holbein, then rejected her as not being good-looking enough. But Nicki Minaj-accented Anna, embodied by hip-hop firecracker Brittney Mack, makes out like a bandit with riches and freedom as she proclaims in “Get Down.”
The most gut-wrenching tale comes from Samantha Pauly as Katherine Howard, who channels Ariana Grande or Britney Spears in “All You Wanna Do,” a litany of falling in love with a series of men who just want to use or abuse her that morphs powerfully from light-hearted acceptance to moral outrage. The second wife to be executed, she’s barely remembered compared to Anne Boleyn.
Alicia Keys-inspired Anna Uzele rounds out the sextet as the fierce and fiercely independent Catherine Parr, who survived Henry VIII and gets the last word in “I Don’t Need Your Love,” an anthem that’s picked up by the rest before the finale, “Six.”
Despite often humorous between-song squabbling that also serves as exposition — on subjects like how many miscarriages each wife had — the contest never really results in a winner, which is okay, because that premise is pretty thin to start with. What does emerge is an ironic twist: While the queens spend a lot of time lamenting that they are only remembered as the wives of Henry VIII, it eventually dawns on them that he’s remembered mostly because he had six wives.
Although I wish the songs were a bit more varied and incorporated more from the real queens’ lives, kudos go to all six performers and to the “Ladies in Waiting,” conductor Julia Schade on keyboard, Kimi Hayes on guitars, Stacy McMichael on electric bass, and Sarah Allen on drums. Scenic designer Emma Bailey and lighting designer Tim Deiling deserve credit for turning The Yard into a convincing rock venue. Music director Roberta Duchak and sound designer Paul Gatehouse help keep it from being as ear-splitting as it could be.
I admit I wasn’t as fired up by “Six” as the rest of the audience, but the concept is ingenious, and the concert is ideal entertainment for a warm summer night.