The musical Six (ongoing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre), about the half dozen spouses of a much-married Tudor king, is heaping with fascinating historical tidbits. I did not know, for instance, that three of Henry VIII’s six wives were black (and one was Asian), I didn’t know that the sad fate of the first five was to be “unfriended,” and I hadn’t heard that all of them dressed like interstellar cocktail waitresses. Nor did I know that these famously ill-used women were secret avatars of girl power. Introducing themselves in a blastoff of an opening number, “Ex-Wives,” they sing, “Get your hands up, get this party buzzin’/ you want queen bees? Well, here’s half a dozen.”

How can you not love a zingy dance number sung by Anne Boleyn in which she says, “Tried to elope but the pope said nope”?

The show is, in a word, outlandish, but it’s also a great deal of fun, the musical event of the (admittedly bleak) Broadway season and by far the most ingenious and enjoyable offering on the Rialto since the pandemic began. Even before this “historemix,” as the ladies call it, came to town after an eighteen-month delay, the cast album derived from the West End production that launched in 2019 began attracting attention among American teens, who have led the cheers for its giddy rhymes, its slick beats, and its retrofitting of patriarchal history to today’s girl-centered Instagram sensibility.

The production turns a bit maudlin in the end, but mostly it’s a laugh, rewriting the dramas of the sixteenth century with pop and R&B beats and lyrical chutzpah. How can you not love a zingy dance number sung by Anne Boleyn in which she says, “Tried to elope but the pope said nope”? Or a synthesizer riff on the deathless melody from “Greensleeves,” supposedly a tune which accompanied a poem written by Henry in honor of Boleyn’s attire? Or a whirlwind dash through the “House of Holbein”—the music alternates between dance club and oom-pah-pah—where the famous painter’s portrait of (number four) Anna of Cleves captivates the king?

Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour, Samantha Pauly as Katherine Howard, Adrianna Hicks as Catherine ofAragon,Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn, Brittney Mack as Anna of Cleves, and Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr in Six. Photo: © Joan Marcus. 

Six is far less deeply invested in the historical record than Hamilton, which it superficially resembles, but there is plenty of history in it, certainly more than you will often find in popular culture these days. Although I fear that the average U.S. teen does not even know the name “Henry VIII,” much less his marital record, you may find your daughter or granddaughter taking up a pleasing interest in the court intrigue of the period. I had a smashing time and so did my high-school-aged daughter. Best of all, the show runs only eighty minutes. Like Boleyn, it’s cute; unlike Boleyn, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Even in a normal Broadway season, it’d be rare to discover more than one or two new musicals that deliver anything like Six’s level of wit and ebullience.

Six isn’t really a full-fledged show but more of a revue, which could have been enriched considerably by the addition of, say, a strong central story. Though omitting the king from the cast is a novel idea that forces us to look back at history from an unexpected direction, the absence of a fully developed libretto is a shame. As it is, each of the ladies tells us her life story in one brief number, plus there are several sung by the entire group.

First presented by the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society, Six was written by then-undergraduates Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who work on lyrics and music together and have a flair for both catchy radio-style hooks and amusing lyrics. Lorenz Hart would have smiled at the wordplay:

My name is Catherine of Aragon

Married twenty-four years, I’m a paragon

Of royalty, my loyalty

is to the Vatican

So if you try to dump me,

You won’t do that again.

The piece is staged in penny-pinching fashion with only the six actresses, four rock musicians on the stage behind them, and a single glitzy set with no scene changes. After the introductory group number, each lady gets the stage to herself: from Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks) to Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack), Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly), and the ultimate victor, Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele). There is a bit of jokey patter between songs that establishes the structure of a sort of reality-television contest in which each of the six competes to prove that she is the queen of the queens. In the final moments, the show does a narrative volte-face as the ladies turn to sisterly solidarity and say they regret their catty competition. The weepy earnestness of the conclusion makes a poor match for most of the rest of the show, but, even so, Six leaves you with a grateful smile.

Both problem plays and comedies tend to age very badly, so it’s baffling to me that anyone still bothers to try to stage the defense-of-prostitution comedy Mrs. Warren’s Profession. George Bernard Shaw wrote it in 1893 but couldn’t get it staged until 1902, at which point it was performed in one of the private London theater clubs that existed to evade the censorship office, that of the Lord Chamberlain. So-called “private performances” faced fewer strictures, but, regardless, no word as bold as “prostitute” or “brothel” appears in the play, whose exercises in euphemism and circumlocution make it as tame today as it was outrageous in the early years of the last century. In New York City, a 1905 performance was shut down by the police on moral grounds; back in England, the play wasn’t performed in a public venue until 1925.

In his “apology” to accompany the published edition of the play, Shaw reveled in his bad-boy status: “I have once more shared with Ibsen the triumphant amusement of startling all but the strongest-headed of the London theatre critics clean out of the practice of their profession.” He savored the “exultation of sending the Press into an hysterical tumult of protest, of moral panic, of involuntary and frantic confession of sin,” etc.

The titular character is Kitty, a wealthy woman who grew up in dire poverty. Long ago, she was working as a barmaid when her estranged sister appeared and enticed her to give prostitution a try. She graduated from that to management, and, as the play opens, she and her business partner Sir George Crofts are the proprietors of a chain of brothels on the Continent. Her headstrong daughter Vivie, a Cambridge graduate, is portrayed as both sophisticated and yet so naive that she has never made inquiries into either the identity of her father or the source of her mother’s wealth. Vivie is a typical message-bearing Shaw type, the Dangerously Modern Woman who is meant to shock the audience when she mentions her penchants for smoking cigars, drinking whisky, and practicing law.

As was the norm in Shaw’s best-known plays, the high point of the evening is supposed to be a Shavian sociopolitical essay in the form of a monologue delivered by an authorial stand-in (in this case, Mrs. Warren) who makes what at the time would have been a daring, contrarian, mischievous defense of prostitution.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession at  Theatre Row. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

As a dramatic narrative, the play is nothing much, nor is it written with any particular stylistic flair. All there really is to the thing is Shaw’s ideas. What of them? As a thinker, Shaw promoted some notions that later came to seem so obvious as scarcely to be worth mentioning (women turn to prostitution out of economic desperation, not because they’re sluts) and others that were fatuous and/or naive. Mrs. Warren says prostitution is no more dishonorable or disgusting than any other kind of labor and suggests it’s the only way for a woman to achieve wealth, other than marriage, which Shaw labels merely a respectable form of prostitution.

As a thinker, Shaw promoted some notions that later came to seem so obvious as scarcely to be worth mentioning.

In short, Shaw was not what you’d call a great thinker. Today his kind of argument is as rare as grass and can be heard wherever half-bright high-school debaters or New York Times columnists lurk. Among a middlebrow audience of Vicwardian theatergoers, Shaw’s work might well have been the first exposure to certain then-startling concepts, but it’s a reach to say a play is enjoyable in 2021 because it was shocking a hundred years ago. This lackluster production, directed by David Staller with a now–de rigueur multiracial cast, does nothing to liven up the chestnut, presented by Staller’s Gingold Theatrical Group on Theatre Row in October and November.

Staged on a single richly detailed set suggesting an upper-middle-class garden, the play finds Mrs. Warren (played by the sturdy veteran Karen Ziemba) and her middle-aged friends Sir George Crofts (Robert Cuccioli) and the Rev. Samuel Gardner (Raphael Nash Thompson) discussing Vivie (Nicole King) as though either of them could be her father. Gardner’s son, the brainless but sunny twit Frank (David Lee Huynh), is fond of the girl himself, though he might be her half-brother, and the hint of possible incest is meant to further antagonize the early twentieth-century audience that Shaw thought defined mainly by its hypocrisy and thus deserving of being baited.

For a play about uncertain parentage, the racial randomness of the casting is even more puzzling than usual; why would a quintessential English playboy be Asian, and why would his father be black? The effect is to make a very artificial play even more artificial. Not for a single moment can you forget that you’re watching actors act. Shaw must have hoped that his much-celebrated wit would keep the play lively indefinitely, but as is true of Shaw’s work overall, the humor on offer has gone as stale and turgid as its didacticism. Almost nothing written in 1893 remains funny today, and a contemporary audience will have to strain mightily even to detect the passages that are meant to amuse. Asked by her daughter whether she is ashamed of herself, Mrs. Warren says, “Well, of course, dearie, it’s only good manners to be ashamed of it: it’s expected from a woman. Women have to pretend to feel a great deal that they don’t feel.” Maybe that line slayed in 1902, but like everything else in the play it has no zing left in it today.

I was ten minutes into Fairycakes (at the Greenwich House Theater through January 2) when I started deeply regretting the life choices that had brought me to this space on this evening. After twenty minutes I was holding my head in my hands. Intermission I spent desperately scanning the concessions stand for arsenic or chloroform; when the play finally ended and my tortures were concluded I trudged home in the rain with the same level of spring in my step as characterized the movements of Frederic Henry at the end of A Farewell to Arms. There is so much good art in the world to be savored, and there is also Fairycakes.

Arnie Burton and Jackie Hoffman in Fairycakes at Greenwich House Theater. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The author of this punitively awful mishegoss is Douglas Carter Beane, a sixty-something writer whose credits include campy Broadway and off-Broadway comedies such as As Bees in Honey Drown (1997), The Little Dog Laughed (2006), and the book for the musical Xanadu (2007). I mention that Beane is a bit on the venerable side because it fascinates me that anyone past college age could present this work to an audience in expectation of any response but hurled projectiles.

The play, with a handful of songs interspersed, blends together fairy tales and elements from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then throws in Queen Elizabeth, for what is meant to be a frolic through a Shakespearean wonderland in which an enchanted mist causes various figures to fall in love with the first person they see when they awaken. Among the dramatis personae are Gepetto and Pinocchio (played respectively by Mo Rocca of CBS Sunday Morning and a child actor named Sabatino Cruz); Cinderella and her prince (Kuhoo Verma, Jason Tam); a pirate named Dirk Deadeye (Arnie Burton); and Moth, Titania, and Puck from Midsummer (Jackie Hoffman, Julie Halston, and Chris Myers). As this is a New York theatrical production in 2021, several of the characters are gay, although in some cases only temporarily rendered so by the enchanted mist. The introduction of homosexuality into the plot is presented as an offbeat, wacky, completely out-of-the-blue twist. Given the preeminence of gay elements in theater, however, the effect is somewhat like watching someone marvel that he has somehow stumbled upon sand at the beach.

In mashing up oft-told tales, Beane invites comparisons to Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1986) that are not favorable to his effort.

In mashing up oft-told tales, Beane invites comparisons to Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1986) that are not favorable to his effort. Sondheim’s work was ingenious and frequently moving; Beane’s blend of elements has much the same level of appeal as something your dog bestowed to you on the carpet. Worse, Beane writes the first three-quarters of the show in heroic couplets, which he uses to such ill effect that it’s like hearing a thousand terrible knock-knock jokes in a row. In nearly every case, the first line of a couplet amounts to a setup that is completed by a terrible punch line. Warning: examples follow. I will keep their number limited so as not to cause you undue distress, but do bear in mind that on your behalf I had to sit through nearly two hours of these before relief came in the closing scenes, which are written in prose and are marginally more tolerable. Among the running gags in the prose portion of the play, Moth, the fairy caught in the whale with Pinocchio, keeps delivering malapropisms when trying to remember the little wooden boy’s name—Pistachio, Pensacola, etc. Hoffman, who can be scathingly funny (and was this past summer, in the backstage study Fruma-Sarah,reviewed in The New Criterion of September 2021) is the performer burdened with these lines, and if anyone could make them funny, she could. But alas.

As for the majority of the play written in verse, imagine the irritation level of an evening built around lines such as:

This is terrible, extreme in the most

One technicality—now we’re all toast.


I shoot my arrow straight into the air

Bet it’s gonna hit the girl with red hair.


You are so fickle you just turn me off

I’m walking away now—I may just scoff.


We’re the coolest gang on the salty sea

And our navigator has ocd.


There now a princess so rare and aloof-y

So far her story has just been goofy.

Fairycakes has the feel of a larkish undergraduate fringe production written by a theater-smitten future lawyer. At the collegiate level, however, I imagine this play presented as a showcase, intended to display its creator’s potential at a length of maybe thirty minutes, which is as much of it as any person with a reasonable level of taste could last. Beane must have called in a lot of chits earned over the last three decades to convince anyone Fairycakes was worth producing even at a smallish off-Broadway house, but, at the performance I attended, the vast majority of the audience sat in sullen silence throughout act one. Then a few dozen theatergoers disappeared during the intermission. My envy of them was nearly unbearable.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 4, on page 61
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