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As I left SIX, now getting its Philly premiere at the Academy of Music through April 9, I headed for the subway alongside a couple who were ecstatic about the show. As we took the stairs down, I overheard the man exclaiming to his female date, wondering how it could be that despite stellar reviews, he hadn’t known a thing about SIX until now.
The show is hardly a secret: it won last year’s Tony for Best Original Score; it’s still running in New York while this tour hits US cities from Providence to Los Angeles and Anchorage to Atlanta; it’s running in London, as well, on a UK tour.
What makes a master?
This surprised male SIX-lover reminded me of something Philly musical theater maven Lexi Schreiber (who’s fighting for a size-inclusive industry) said on her Fat Ingénue social platforms about a year ago. She’s also a big SIX fan, though she sees a disparity.
“I think SIX could and should be getting as much critical acclaim and attention as Hamilton,” Schreiber argues, but because its structure, form, and presentation are inherently feminine, “it is seen as less, and therefore won’t or can’t get that acclaim.” On Instagram, commenters point out that Hamilton will always be on top because it paved the way for SIX, and that Lin-Manuel Miranda is just simply “a master.”
“Who’s to say these writers are not also masters?” Schreiber asks of the SIX creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss (who directs this production with Jamie Armitage). If they aren’t, is it because SIX trades in more pop references, which, as a genre with a majority of female stars, “is less idolized and seen as a less challenging musical style?”
The Greensleeves remix
Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.
It’s how we meet the six queens: Catherine of Aragon (the “paragon”), Anne Boleyn (“everybody chill, it’s totes God’s will”), Jane Seymour (“lucky, really lucky”), Anna of Cleves (after Henry adjusted his location settings), Katherine Howard (“please me, squeeze me, birds and the bees me”), and survivor Catherine Parr (“I didn’t have a choice”).
Gabriella Slade’s costumes cut martial silhouettes in the opening tableau, like studded, spangled suits of armor with rich Renaissance courtier puffs. Emma Bailey’s set holds the band (“ladies in waiting” Lena Gabrielle on keys, Sterlyn Termine on bass, Liz Faure on guitar, and Caroline Moore on drums) on a stepped dais, with the perfect glitz and flash of a reality-TV competition (lights by Tim Deiling). The backdrop’s light-up architecture can instantly become a cathedral, throne, or Tinder profile.
The show kicks off with the strains of “Greensleeves” like you’ve probably never heard it. (Henry VIII was an avid composer, but contrary to popular myth, he didn’t come up with this one—it made its way to England during the reign of Anne Boleyn’s daughter.) But there’s plenty here for Tudor history buffs, set to “beats so sick they’ll give you gout.” Ankles in chunky, rhinestone-covered boots trot like show-ponies, flashing to the back of the house.
The C/Katherines, Anne, Jane, and Anna
The queens belt out their own stories in the style of a slick pop concert, arguing over who had it the hardest with Henry. Gerianne Pérez’s golden, outsize Catherine of Aragon is both impish and righteously royal. Zan Berube threatens to shatter glass with her sassy, squeaky, sky-high vocals as Anne Boleyn—an insouciant influencer who can shrug off her own beheading. Amina Faye combines a honeyed ballad of Jane Seymour’s steadfast love with a voice to vibrate every last crystal in the Academy of Music chandelier, her monumental white bodice slashed with lines like a Tudor façade. Terica Marie delights with luxe satisfaction as Anna of Cleves, who landed on her own estate without “a single man to tell me what to do with it.”
Aline Mayagoitia adds pathos to the nubile, naïve Katherine Howard, as Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography turns the ensemble into a forest of insistent hands which Katherine, a pawn to her scheming family, can’t escape. Sydney Parra, as Catherine Parr, draws the show toward its close with an earthy sarcasm forged in sadness.
Parra’s Parr brings the metanarrative home, asking her fellow queens (and us) whether we really have to define ourselves by competing in the trauma Olympics. Are the queens stuck in their historical, patriarchal framework? Are we? It feels fitting that it’s Parra who says “bans off our bodies” in her playbill bio. Why do we, like the SIX queens, feel forced to take such fierce ownership of our tragedies? In a post-Roe country, is our trauma the only thing left to call our own?
“A female response"?
Schreiber calls SIX a female response to Hamilton, but by that, she says, “I don’t necessarily mean it’s only for women.” What she’s getting at is that we place “masculine” or “feminine” labels on things as a society, and judge them accordingly. This surged into my mind as the man I overhead in the subway continued his praise for SIX.
“Let me tell you how girl power that was,” he said to his date. “It was so girl power that I never once thought it was girl power … I didn’t think for one second that it was a women’s show.”
Why not? Because if it's all women onstage, many men assume they won't be able to relate—or won't be interested? Or because artistic excellence and being “for women” are mutually exclusive? Why was he so ignorant of the show before he walked into it? Why was he so surprised that the show is great? Why was he so gratified to believe that this show is, after all, not “a women’s show”?
Take those questions with you as you get your tickets. This fleet, sparkling performance and its ensemble are worth the crown jewels.
What, When, Where
SIX the Musical. By Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage. Through April 9, 2023, at the Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with accessible seating locations available in advance.
Masks are optional.
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