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Queens are wild and wonderful in a masterful ‘Six’ at Chicago Shakespeare

Amid a powerhouse score and exceptional cast, the history of Henry VIII’s wives doesn’t turn away from trauma, brutality and sorrow, but the six women on stage persist in breaking free nevertheless.

The Queens of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Six”: Jane Seymour (played by Abby Mueller, from left), Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly), Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack) and Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele).
Liz Lauren Photo

History is hot in musical theater, but it’s not just about the Founding Fathers anymore. With “Six,” Lucy Moss (writer/director), Toby Marlow (writer) and Jamie Armitage (director) celebrate the lives of six Tudor-era wives of British monarch Henry VIII. Resistance is futile: The queens are a forcefield. Ditto the score, and its glorious onslaught of power ballads, pile-driving punk numbers, day-glo ravers, Spice Girl realness, rap, hip-hop and head-banging, hair-whipping, foot-stomping, twerk-worthy old school rock-and-roll.

The premise comes with formidable challenges. How do you celebrate six women remembered only because of the man they married? There’s not a lot of room for empowerment in a narrative about characters whose lives were proscribed by one of the most violently patriarchal societies this side of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

You can’t spin a beheading (Anne Boleyn), a lifetime time of sexual assault (Katherine Howard), being forced as a child to travel across the world to marry a complete stranger more than twice your age (Catherine of Aragon), dying in childbirth (Jane Seymour) or being rejected for being ugly (Anna of Cleves). As genres go, musicals are usually inherently uplifting, no matter the grimness of their subject matter. But with “Six” it’s tough to see how they’ll turn the tragedies of Henry’s wives into a feel-good rock concert.

Moss, Marlow and Armitage don’t try to spin anything. Instead, they give the all-woman cast (which includes an onstage band of “ladies in waiting”) a powerhouse score that offers everyone on stage a shot at mastering her own story. “Six” doesn’t turn away from trauma, brutality and sorrow, but the six women on stage persist in breaking free nevertheless. “Six” is a party that celebrates the wives and lays bare the barbaric way they were used.

Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack, at center) performs “Get Down” in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s North American Premiere production of “Six,” written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armita
Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack, at center) performs “Get Down” in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s North American Premiere production of “Six” in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. | Liz Lauren Photo
Liz Lauren Photo

We start with a litany of woes from Catherine of Aragon (played by Adrianna Hicks), who was forced to live with Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), the wife who replaced her. Hicks blows the stage open with “No Way,” a number that’s pure adrenalin rush, all heat and light and rage in the service of a beat “so sick it’ll give you gout.” When Hicks goes for the stratosphere with a high “C” (a pitch humans are not built to reach) she soars. When she raps about the Old Testament book of Leviticus, it’s like she’s throwing down a gauntlet.

Hicks is followed by Macasaet’s Lolita-like sorry/not sorry take on Anne Boleyn with “Don’t Lose Ur Head,” both solid advice and the audaciously confident refrain of a millennial who has no shame for making the most of bad choices, worse advice and Henry’s split with the church. (“Everybody chill! It’s totes God’s will!”)

Abby Mueller’s “Heart of Stone” is a 12-hankie barn-burner. As Jane Seymour, Mueller is almost motionless throughout the song, standing in a pool of light that puts the focus solely on her extraordinary vocals. She literally stops the show without so much as a dance break.

She’s followed by the hallucinatory “Haus of Holbein,” an all-hands number that combines the off-the-wall giddiness of an after-hours rave and a blistering commentary on Tudor-era beauty norms that required women to lace themselves into body-deforming corsets and/or slather their faces with poisonous lead-based powder. “Heart of Stone” is emotionally eviscerating. “Haus of Holbein” is the party you need after the evisceration.

As Katherine Howard, Samantha Pauly takes center stage with “All You Wanna Do,” a harrowing description of lifelong sexual assault. Pauly makes Howard’s optimism heartbreaking — after each rape, she’s convinced that this time, the man truly loves her. When she reaches the point where denial is no longer possible, it’s wrenching.

Finally, there’s “Get Down,” in which Brittney Mack as Anna of Cleves urges all the queens to “get in (Re)formation” and “I Don’t Need Your Love,” featuring Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr. The former is an ode to living your best life, financed by your abusive ex’s deep pockets. The latter makes it clear that your ex- doesn’t define you.

Music director Roberta Duchak works her usual magic: This is a sextet with a sound beyond reproach. Designers Emma Bailey (set) and Tim Deiling (lights) make the whole shebang look fabulous. Gabriella Slade’s elaborately bedazzled costumes take 16th century elements (ruffs, crowns) and wed them to 21st century party gear (sequins, micro-minis) for a series of runway-worthy looks, each one revealing aspects of the queen wearing them.

If history were as fascinating as “Six,” we’d all be Tudor-era scholars.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.