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‘Six: The Musical’ – Henry VIII’s wives, the pop group you never knew you needed

WARNING: This review contains plot spoilers!

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]: The Six video banner outside Canberra Theatre, the Opening Night Purple Carpet below.
The Six video banner outside Canberra Theatre with the opening night purple carpet below

Six: The Musical is so good, I’ve now seen it three times. 

It’s Spice Girls meets Tudor history, and as an unabashed theatre nerd who spent too much time memorising the Horrible Histories Monarchs song as a kid, it’s a show I was ready to love.

I walked in with high expectations, a memorised studio cast recording, and a legion of knowledge of its Broadway counterpart. Yet, I still wasn’t prepared for how Six blew me away.

Six: The Musical, Studio Cast Recording on Spotify

Six is a thrilling up-tempo pop concert sensation. King Henry VIII’s six wives (yes, he really did have six) are re-conceptualised into the best girl group since Little Mix, and battle it out to see who deserves to be the face of their band.

And admittedly, on paper, the premise of Six doesn’t sound like something that could sustain its 75-minute run time, and indeed, there isn’t much to the musical in the way of plot.

But it’s not needed. Six is a battle through hardship as much as it’s a battle through song, with the queens deciding whoever had it worse from “the man who put a ring on it” should win – with audience approval of course.

Six: the Musical Trailer for the Australia and New Zealand Tour

And audience approval is a must. As an audience, you’re encouraged to engage as if it were a true concert. I found myself cheering, applauding, and even waving my hands in the air, something I would never do in a different show.

The louder you are, the more approval the queen gets.

It’s not a jukebox musical, but with each packaged song from each Queen, it almost feels like one. Ultimately, they’re a group, but it’s beyond satisfying to watch their individual songs. Each Queen solo turn makes it clear; they’re all the breakout stars.

Meet the Six

As in life as Henry’s first wife, Pheonix Jackson Mendoza’s Catherine of Aragon, the “paragon of royalty,” starts the competition off.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION] Actor Phoenix Jackson Mendoza wearing a black and gold bedazzled Tudor style costume, with large shoulder pads and a spikey golden grown.
Phoenix Jackson Mendoza as Catherine of Aragon (Photo Credit James D. Morgan – Getty Images, supplied by Lucky Star Media)

She’s immediately engaging, drawing the audience in with her story, before singing a note. Once Mendoza does start to sing, it’s enthralling.

Her voice holds the weight of a woman who was Queen for 24 years, it’s rich, and you immediately understand why Aragon thinks she’ll “win this competition.”

And it’s backed by a brilliant song. No Way gives Mendoza countless opportunities to express her range, which she takes every time.

And she is regal. Aragon holds herself with poise and sharpness, but is also engaging and dynamic with the audience. Her energy harkens Shakira or Beyonce, and it’s easy to get swept up in her piece.

Choreography to tell a story

Chelsea Dawsons song as Katherine Howard is unique. Unlike the other Queens, who know exactly what they’re upset about and why, Howard learns the extent of her trauma in real time, learning with the audience.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]: Actor Chelsea Dawson, wearing a black and pink bedazzled Tudor style costume. Other cast members are grabbing her, their hands over her person as she sings in to the microphone.
Chelsea Dawson as Katherine Howard (Photo Credit James D. Morgan – Getty Images, supplied by Lucky Star Media)

Its impact is further cemented in Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s brilliant choreography, which feels more purposeful here.

Whilst the queens have danced in tandem with the soloist in past songs, here, the Queens seem almost against Howard, stone faced, jagged robotic movements, and touching her even as she continuously shrugs them off.

It reaches its peak at the final chorus, where the Queens wrap their hands around Howard, reflective of the men Howard sings about, who have done the same thing.

The friend I dragged along to see it with me my third night said it best: Katherine Howard’s song is messed up.

And it is. Dawson has a level of control in her voice that conveys the distress Howard goes through on stage. As Howard realises the sheer extent of the trauma she’s gone through, her voice warbles, and the growls she had been doing playfully at the start of each chorus are more forced, as if she’s forcing the words out and trying to remain upbeat.

And it culminates into her belt, which feels more like a cry for help than a demonstrable power note, which all the previous belts have been. It’s isolating and desperate, and you feel anguished with Howard when she is left standing alone under a single spotlight.

It’s the most powerful song of the show, and consistently left me bawling like a baby all three times I saw it, despite knowing its context and how it would go.

The further power of a belt

Loren Hunter’s Jane Seymour, “the only one [Henry] truly loved,” is defined by her motherhood, or rather, the loss of it. She laments over dying through childbirth and therefore never experiencing it.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]: Actor Loren Hunter, wearing a black and white bedazzled dress. Her hand is on her chest while she sings into the microphone.
Loren Hunter as Jane Seymour (Photo Credit James D. Morgan – Getty Images, supplied by Lucky Star Media)

Seymour is Adele meets an extra mum-joke or three, and its endearing every time she makes a funny – if purposely awkward pun.

And her song, Heart of Stone, lets her shine in a quintessential Celine Dion power ballad, giving Hunter all the time to show off the strength in her voice and have fun with the piece.

Heart of Stone is slower than the other songs, there’s no dancing, and limited stage theatrics. The focus is entirely on Hunter. A lesser performer would make this boring, but Hunter draws you in, leaving you captivated as she sings about how she’ll stand by Henry’s side.

My jaw fell as she hit the belt towards the end of Heart of Stone, completely blown away while she sang through several bars without seeming to take a breath.

And as awe-inducing as Heart of Stone is, it made me somewhat disappointed by the two solo’s that bookmark the piece.

Power makes way for fun

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]: Actor Karla Gare, wearing a black and green shiny Tudor style outfit. She's singing into the microphone, her other hand raised in a rock hand gesture. Her other cast members are behind her, also singing.
Kala Gare as Anne Boleyn (Photo Credit James D. Morgan – Getty Images, supplied by Lucky Star Media)

Don’t Lose Your Head is fun, it’s funny, and like Anne Boleyn, it breaks the rules. Boleyn is on her phone when she’s introduced to sing, and actively stops the song once she realises she’s about to be beheaded.

Kala Gare, who portrays Boleyn, is even better. With an abundance of words like ‘mate’ (that they removed from the American productions), and wit as dry as the shiraz I had before the show, Gare’s Boleyn feels quintessentially Australian.

It’s different from the perky, bubbly version from the original cast album, but I preferred Gare’s take. Her Boleyn is more grounded, and makes way for some great comedic timing.

Karis Oka, on as swing for Anna of Cleves had an equally entertaining song, and is the next solo piece after Heart of Stone.

Get Down is the most fun song, it’s a celebration rather than a chilling account of trauma. Anna of Cleaves wasn’t left broken by Henry, a fact she herself admits.

After all, she’s the “queen of the castle.”

Oka was involved with the audience, prompting us to wave our hands, spoke to us, and broke up her singing with audience interaction.

Like Gare, Oka’s rendition of Cleaves feels intimately Australian. She harkens a broad Australian accent, and engages with members of the audience with the same sort of energy one would see at the local pub.

Her version of Cleaves is different from what I was expecting, but I fell in love with it. She’s fun, sassy, and filled with an Aussie brand of self-assurance that she pulls off effortlessly.

An endemic of speak-singing

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]: The cast of Six, singing towards the camera on stage.
The Australian cast of Six (Photo Credit James D. Morgan – Getty Images, supplied by Lucky Star Media)

So why was I disappointed then? The problem comes down to the sheer talent that both Kala Gare and Karis Oka have. Their voices are incredible, but their solos give them too few opportunities to show that.

A pop song with more speaking than singing isn’t uncommon. But while Doja Cat and Kesha can easily make hits using speak-singing, they have whole discographies that present their range. Gare and Oka don’t have this luxury, and are instead confined to a single solo piece and backing vocals.

And when peppered in between powerhouses like No Way and Heart of Stone, the lack of opportunity to show their voices gravitas make their songs feel a bit empty.

Both Oka and Gare have an end of song belt, as do the other Queens. In Don’t Lose Your Head and Get Down, these belts were my favourite moments.

Gare showed off a voice holding the fire of Hayley Williams or Lily Allen, that made me desperately want to hear more of. It was similar with Oka. When her belt rolled around in Get Down, it was powerful, and took me aback.

We continued to see pockets of the potential in their voices, most notably in the last song, Six, where Boleyn and Cleaves got to sing solo lines that were a bit more mellow.

But each time they did so highlighted the loss of not hearing their voices at full capacity in their solo’s, and I was left feeling robbed of the opportunity to hear so.

All things considered, it’s a pretty forgiving gripe to have with a show. Essentially, it boils down to – I wish they sang more.

How the script flips

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]: The cast of Six, sitting in a loose V formation on the steps on the set on stage, holding out their hands as if taking selfies.
The Australian cast of Six (Photo Credit James D. Morgan – Getty Images, supplied by Lucky Star Media)

But sometimes the lightness and fun that they model felt like a guilty pleasure. There’s an undercurrent of darkness in Six. The crux of the show highlights the immense abuse and misogyny these women faced.

After all, they’re divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived. You can’t escape the fact that their inevitable fate was, by and large, quite cruel.

Which is why feminism is weaved seamlessly through the piece. It’s captured from blink and you’ll miss it moments like the quiet support the Queens give one another when a different pair are arguing, to outright declarations such as tongue-in-cheek jokes like “herstory.”

But we, the audience, are made complicit in this voyeuristic abuse. The Queens outright state that we too, are only viewing them through their connection to Henry – the character who get’s the most stage time in the show despite never actually appearing.

And this is done on purpose, flipping the script on its head.

The climax of the show comes when the Queens realise they’re more than how they have been defined in history, and they, like women everywhere, deserve to control their own narrative.

It’s an empowering move that completely reshapes what the show has been on, and is brought about by the final Queen, the “survivor,” Vidya Makan’s Catherine Parr.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION] Actor Vidya Makan wearing a black and blue bedazzled Tudor style costume, with large shoulder, her hand in the air and singing.
Vidya Makan as Catherine Parr (Photo Credit James D. Morgan – Getty Images, supplied by Lucky Star Media)

I Don’t Need Your Love, is done, in part, because the other Queens convince Parr into singing. Because of this, it holds a distinctly different flavour than the other songs.

Parr isn’t trying to convince anyone should win, she’s trying to convince both her fellow Queens, and the audience, that the competition doesn’t matter in the first place.

And it’s convincing. Makan’s voice is warm, and her delivery inviting. She gives the audience “context” to her situation, how she’s been married twice before Henry, and that she’s been ripped from her true love to marry him.

And her singing is sensational. What starts as a love letter to who she would then go on to marry after Henry – Thomas Seymour (who, ironically, was Jane Seymours brother), grows into a her mantra.

I Don’t Need Your Love is an act of defiance as much as it is an affirmation of her own identity outside of her marriage. After an interlude where the Queens discuss the ramifications of existing outside of Henry, I Don’t Need Your Love is a mantra they all adopt.

And, like most of the other Queens, the song lends itself to multiple opportunities for Makan to shine, which she does with ease. Towards the end, with a chorus of the Queens, Makan defines herself as a powerhouse vocalist, lending out incredible riffs.

It makes way for an uplifting conclusion, bright in a way the show cannot be before then. The focus moves from trauma and abuse, into the reaffirmation of the Queens own personhood, which is distinctly empowering.

The MegaSIX

However, this ending is wrapped up pretty quickly. We experience this jubilation at the end of the show for “5 more minutes, we’re six,” and the show is over. It leaves you wanting more.

Of course, writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss predicted this, and added an encore; the MegaSIX. It’s a culmination of everything the show is about, reclaiming your voice, and having fun while doing it.

Luckily, audiences are allowed to film this – in true concert fashion.

The MegaSIX from Canberra’s Opening Night

The first time I left the theatre, I left in a daze, and it wasn’t much different subsequent times. Six is phenomenal, and surely not something to be missed.

And, no true pop concert is complete without snagging some of the confetti. I took a piece for every show I saw, but lost one in the rain. Perhaps I lost it in one of those dazes. I might just have to go back a forth time and pick up another piece.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]:The Six program and a magazine, with the confetti sitting on top. The confetti is two strips of golden paper.
The Six program and a magazine, with the confetti sitting on top

Six is playing at Canberra Theatre until the 15th of May. You can get tickets here.

Original photos and video by Celeste Gibbs