Commercialized queens – reviewing Citadel Theatre’s SIX

At the risk of being a complete party-pooper and raining on Edmonton’s current theatre parade, I have to say that SIX didn’t blow me away.

There has been no shortage of hype for this show – tickets appeared on Stub Hub, for heaven’s sake. Due to demand, the Citadel released a few more show dates. #SIXyeg is all over social media. Even if you don’t pay attention to theatre, you’ve probably heard about SIX by now.

The main reason for this hype is because SIX is Broadway-bound, similar to Hadestown a couple years ago. And because Hadestown went on to win a pile of Tony Awards, it has become quite a feather in the Citadel’s cap that they mounted an earlier production of that show before it lit up Broadway.

Briefly, SIX presents us with the six wives of Henry VIII, who have metamorphosed into pop stars in some vague glittery afterlife. They take turns delivering their stories of pain, abuse and beheadings in the form pop numbers. Each queen is styled after a pair of pop stars – Catherine of Aragon after Beyoncé and Shakira; Anne Boleyn after Avril Lavigne and Lily Allen. It’s like watching an historical, smarter version of the Spice Girls.

In many ways, SIX lives up to its hype. All ten of the performers on stage – the six queens and the four musicians accompanying them (the “Ladies in Waiting”) – are incredibly talented. The energy never falters from the moment they stride on stage to their final departure, after a standing ovation and jubilant encore on opening night – and most other nights, I’d be willing to wager. The script and song lyrics, written by young playwrights Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, are riotously clever and frequently hilarious. The score is super catchy, as good pop tunes should be. I’ve had All You Wanna Do stuck in my head for days.

Put simply: these ladies slap. It’s a great show.

But.

The cast of SIX. Photo by Liz Lauren.

SIX is fun and engaging, but like pop music itself, there isn’t much substance underneath all the glamour. 

In SIX’s later moments, the final queen and proto-feminist Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele), rejects the group’s previous competitiveness and proposes a different approach: uniting in sisterhood after realizing they are the reason why their husband is famous all these centuries later. It’s a step towards empowerment and taking back history – sorry, herstory. They sing a song together that wraps it all up in a nice bow and absolves the audience of the nigh-impossible task of picking one queen to rule them all. (However, for the record: Anna of Cleves, played brilliantly by Brittney Mack with a confident superiority that Cersei Lannister would envy. She’s the queen of my castle, hands down.)

This brought a satisfying end to the show, but it also rang a bit hollow. The previously cutthroat queens’ immediate acceptance of this turn was far too quick a plot twist to be wholly believable. But then again, there’s hardly a plot to begin with; SIX is mainly a series of quippy one-liners and banter moving us from one (admittedly great) song to the next. It’s an 80-minute concert, not a play. These fantastic characters deserve a complete story, not just the highlights reel.

SIX is also nakedly commercial in a way that’s impossible to ignore – indeed, in a way that’s central to the show itself. We are talking about pop stars, after all.

The overboard hype, the auctioned tickets, the merch table set up in the lobby – I know all of these things are very Broadway. And there are very good reasons to bring shows like this to Edmonton: they are a treat to see and they further Edmonton’s international reputation as a hub of world-class theatre. They also draw out a crowd who wouldn’t normally go see live theatre, and that commercial success alone is super important to ensure the continued wellbeing of Edmonton’s flagship theatre. I tip my hat to Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran; this was a smart business move.

The cast of SIX. Photo by Liz Lauren.

I think it’s premature, however, to compare SIX with Hadestown. Yes, both are/were Broadway-bound after a stop here, but it remains to be seen whether SIX will enjoy the same success as Hadestown. Also, it should be noted that the 2017 production of Hadestown in Edmonton was not the final version of the show that won all the awards – it was massively reworked before it opened on Broadway.

The hype for SIX also makes me sad that other, local theatre shows never enjoy even a fraction of this attention.

Perhaps I’m being too anti-establishment. Or snobby. But the more I reflect on SIX, the more uneasy it makes me. 

That unease derives from what SIX represents: the shameless commodification of theatre, packaged in glittery pop culture wrapping paper and served on an overpriced collectible T-shirt to the screaming masses.

But.

It’s a great show! I want to see SIX go through another evolution that fleshes out the script and gives these amazing characters – and their bitingly clever songs – more backstory than its current brief concert-in-the-afterlife format. That would help convince audiences that SIX is actually moving the needle forward on female empowerment, and not just another iteration of pop culture’s eminently marketable brand of Girl Power(TM).

Such is the conflicting charm of SIX, which is the same charm of the pop music upon which it is based: you’ll love it, even when part of you hates it.

 

SIX

By Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss

Citadel Theatre, until Sunday, Nov 24


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