REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★

SIX The Musical is the brainchild of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, two Cambridge University graduates who wrote the book, music and lyrics while studying for their final exams and staged the musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

After its Edinburgh outing, backing from producers Andy and Wendy Barnes and Kenny Wax saw SIX go to London (first off and then on the West End), where it became a smash hit and picked up five Olivier Award nominations. Two UK tours have already been mounted, the show has enjoyed sell-out seasons across North America, and a Broadway production is set to begin performances in February. On top of that, Marlow and Moss signed a deal with Warner Music Group last year, with the publishing arm of the organisation working with the pair to develop them as songwriters for contemporary artists.

Now, Australian audiences have their first chance to experience the phenomenon that is SIX, with the local premiere production opening last night at the Sydney Opera House’s Studio, where it will play a nine-week run before travelling to Melbourne and Adelaide.

SIX takes its audience back to sixteenth century Tudor England, when the notorious King Henry VIII ruled absolutely. He was a monarch best remembered for having married six wives and breaking with the Catholic Church to declare himself head of his own church. In a sassy musical staged and structured like a pop concert, the six queens – Aragon (Chloé Zuel), Boleyn (Kala Gare), Seymour (Loren Hunter), Cleves (Kiana Daniele), Howard (Courtney Monsma), and Parr (Vidya Makan) – compete to become lead singer of the group. Each queen takes her turn to tell her story through song and makes the case that her own plight was worse than that of the other five. Backed by a cracking all-women band (Musical Director Claire Healey, Ali Foster, Debbie Yap and Jessica Dunn), the six queens take control of their individual stories, in order for audiences to see them as something more than a mere wife of Henry.

SIX is a history lesson packaged into a dynamic, contemporary, girl-power-packed stage spectacle, performed with energy by a highly talented cast. Marlow’s and Moss’s lyrics tell the story with total clarity (though, there is overstatement, at times) and their pop melodies reference the hits of some of the greatest pop divas of this century. It’s a score full of catchy pop tunes.

Directed by Grace Taylor (SIX’s International Associate Director), the Australian production transforms the 300-seat Sydney Opera House Studio into a mini arena. Tim Deiling’s lights bring the colour and movement we expect from a big-scale pop presentation, while Paul Gatehouse’s sound design gets the volume and bass right, without sacrificing the vocals. Emma Bailey’s set, characterised by its arches, works wonderfully in combination with Deiling’s lighting design, and Gabriella Slade’s costumes are themselves a highlight. Not only is the colour palette terrific, but there’s a clear nod to Tudor England in each piece and, simultaneously, homage paid to the street wardrobe choices of the girls who fill stadiums in the twenty-first century.

But, of course, SIX lives and dies on the strength of its queens, and it’s a fierce sextet that’s been assembled for this Australian premiere production. It’s a difficult task to pick a favourite from such a strong ensemble. There’s Zuel’s Beyoncé-esque Aragon, Gare’s Lily Allen-inspired Boleyn, Hunter’s Seymour (who favours Adele’s sound), Daniele’s Cleves (who co-creator Moss imagines as Nicki Minaj-meets-Rihanna), Monsma’s Howard (in the image of Ariana Grande), and Makan’s Parr (conjuring Alicia Keys). All work hard to carve a distinct character and to elevate their story through seriously impressive vocals.

Despite some occasional heavy-handedness, SIX is cleverly written and forces us to consider the lens through which we view crucial episodes in history. From whose perspective is the official version of events told? Does it do justice to all involved? Are there other stories waiting to be told, stories that will reset our world view? SIX is not just a revisiting of Tudor history but also offers a modern critique of women’s voices in storytelling.

SIX The Musical has become an enormous hit in the international markets it has visited to date. Given this production, I have no doubt the show will have a similar trajectory in Australia. Highly recommended.

Photo credit: James D. Morgan

SIX THE MUSICAL – SYDNEY SEASON DETAILS

Dates: Playing now until Thursday 5 March 2020
Venue: Studio, Sydney Opera House
Prices: From $59 ($8.50 booking fee applies per transaction)
Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com or by phone on (02) 9250 7777

SIX The Musical plays Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre from April 23 and Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theatre from June 11 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. For more details about the tour, visit sixthemusical.com.au.

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