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From left: Lauren Mariasoosay, Maggie Lacasse, Krystal Hernández (centre), Elysia Cruz, Julia Pulo and Jaz Robinson in Six The Musical.Joan Marcus/Handout

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  • Title: Six The Musical
  • Written by: Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
  • Director: Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
  • Actors: Jaz Robinson, Julia Pulo, Maggie Lacasse, Krystal Hernández, Elysia Cruz and Lauren Mariasoosay
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: Royal Alexandra Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Dec. 17, 2023

Critic’s pick

Long live the Queens!

After a brief stop at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, the Canadian production of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s Tony Award-winning musical about Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives has finally arrived in Toronto. And with any luck, this royal visit should last a good long time – well beyond its current Dec. 17 closing date.

Written by the British duo when they were students at Cambridge University for the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, Six has reigned supreme wherever it’s played: the West End, Australia, Broadway (after a pre-Broadway run that included the aforementioned Citadel) and elsewhere.

And no wonder. Six’s songs are catchy, its message of female empowerment and solidarity inspiring and its lighting design, costumes and choreography as eye-poppingly fun as anything at a girl-group pop concert.

Never pretending to be a dramatically engaging piece of theatre, Six leans into its stadium-show concept. Its characters even joke about it, saying they’re “live in consort.” At the top, they strut out onstage, holding microphones and exclaiming, “How ya doing, Toronto?!” – as if this is one stop on their Tudors tour.

The conceit is that the six monarchs – who early on repeat that gruesome classroom verse about them being “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” – have returned from their graves to crown one of them the leader of the band. It’s up to the audience to vote for the winner. And by winner, they mean the most maligned and ill-used by history.

And so, in chronological order and backed up by their all-female band (their rockin’ “ladies in waiting”), the queens present their cases.

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Julia Pulo, centre left, brings a vivid personality and impeccable comic timing to the role of Anne Boleyn.Joan Marcus/Handout

Should the winner be the imperious, devout Catherine of Aragon (Jaz Robinson), who was married to Henry’s older brother at 15 before being passed along to him like some possession? Or should it be Anne Boleyn (Julia Pulo), she of the infamous decapitation, who made England break with the Catholic Church? Or what about Jane Seymour (Maggie Lacasse), allegedly the only one of his wives that Henry truly loved?

The songs are Six’s crown jewels: There’s a reason why the show won the Tony for best score and why its various cast albums have broken records for downloads and streams. Marlow and Moss have cleverly written numbers that simultaneously tell you about the characters belting them out and act as homages to past and present rulers of contemporary pop music.

Hence, Catherine of Aragon’s big defiant number, No Way, features the R&B grooves and hooks of a Beyoncé or Shakira song, while Anna of Cleves’s Get Down, with its sultry hip-hop rhymes, will make you think of Nicki Minaj or Rihanna. As for Jane Seymour’s soaring power ballad, Heart of Stone, it’s easy to see Adele or Céline Dion as the “queenspiration” – Marlow and Moss’s term – behind it.

When the women aren’t centre stage, they’re providing backup vocals and executing (excuse the pun) Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s kinetic choreography. The movement, like the songs, never feels repetitive.

Once the show establishes its structure, directors Moss and Jamie Armitage understand that they need to mix things up. And so we witness the queens bickering among themselves, providing recaps and even – in a much-needed midshow gambit – moving from the royal court of England to Germany where Henry, after failing with three wives, attempts to find someone else by checking out the latest portraits by acclaimed painter Hans Holbein.

This introduces the most amusing and visually intriguing sequence in the show, as we enter the “Haus of Holbein,” complete with house music, hazy club lighting and the backup queens donning severe dark glasses and neck ruffs.

Like the songs, the book is studded with contemporary references: Cellphones figure frequently, and that Holbein number is staged as if it’s one extended, onstage Tinder session. The show’s spirit, furthermore, is pure historical and feminist revisionism. How the women journey from comparing their stories of victimization to reclaiming their dignity and agency gives it a modern twist that is thrilling.

In the spirit of Six, I’ll refrain from crowning any one of the performers as the best – after all, this is a true ensemble show. But Lacasse puts her singular stamp on Jane’s big number, while Krystal Hernández handles Anne of Cleves’s complex character with effortless grace and agility. Pulo, meanwhile, brings a vivid personality and impeccable comic timing to the role of Anne Boleyn.

This is the sort of show that, if marketed correctly, could entice audiences to return, bringing their friends for a quick, 80-minute dose of musical theatre adrenalin.

Repeat visits will also allow you to savour Gabriella Slade’s stunning Tony Award-winning costumes, which tell you as much about the queens as their songs – not to mention Tim Deiling’s intricate lighting design, which suggests architectural details, and the layered, musical arrangements. If you’re wondering why the folk tune Greensleeves gets sampled in the opening number, it’s because Henry VIII is rumoured to have written it to woo the young Anne Boleyn.

That’s the kind of smart detail that should ensure Six enjoys a long life at the box office.

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Six is the sort of show that, if marketed correctly, could entice audiences to return, bringing their friends for a quick, 80-minute dose of musical theatre adrenaline.Joan Marcus/Handout

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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