As we waited before a performance of SIX at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, my companion asked if I could name the six wives of Henry VIII from memory without looking at the program. Impressively—to me, anyway—I came up with five. (Sorry, Catherine Parr!)

But what, exactly, did I actually know about these historical figures? Anne Boleyn, of course, is best remembered as the mother of Queen Elizabeth I—an honor for which she was rewarded with decapitation. Catherine of Aragon’s devout Catholic faith caused the establishment of Church of England. Jane Seymour took the triple crown: Henry genuinely loved her; she bore him a son; and she died of natural causes.

But beyond snatches of trivia, these women are likely best remembered by the nursery rhyme that opens this brief, high-octane musical, written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss: “Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.” And that’s something of a problem.

As one Queen succinctly points out, they all come from different countries, social backgrounds, religious traditions, and family dynamics. The only thing they have in common is their marriage to the same man. Isn’t it kind of reductive that we still reflexively group them together?

Six sets out to give each Queen her own moment in the spotlight. As sung in the rousing opening number “Ex-Wives”: “I’m done because all this time / I’ve been just one word in a stupid rhyme.”

The musical has clearly connected with a wide audience since its debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017. Many in the sold-out audience of the national tour performance I attended seemed to know the words to every song and to anticipate the sharp inside jokes before they happened. But the sharp and glitzy production, co-directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage, doesn’t suffer from a sense of staleness due to familiarity.

With one solo song devoted to each wife, the six superb cast members infuse their Queens with distinctive personalities. Gerianne Pérez brings a seen-it-all attitude to Catherine of Aragon, and her world-weariness contrasts nicely with the youthful insouciance of Zan Berube’s Anne Boleyn. Anne’s social media-centric number “Don’t Lose Ur Head” captures the musical’s tongue-in-cheek attitude perfectly.

As Anna of Cleves—whom Henry allegedly scorned because her physical beauty didn’t live up to her Holbein portrait—Terica Marie shows how rejection can be a delicious blessing in disguise. Aline Mayagolita is a dead ringer for Ariana Grande as Katherine Howard, who chronicles her flirtatious behavior in the innuendo-laden “All I Wanna Do.”

The richest portrayals accompany the score’s best songs. Amina Faye brings genuine pathos to “Heart of Stone,” a rafter-shaking pop ballad that expounds on Jane Seymour’s constancy and devotion. As Catherine Parr, Sydney Parra emerges as the voice of reason, reminding the women that they are more than their man.

Whether I know any more about the wives of Henry VIII on a deep intrinsic level than I did before Six is questionable. The show isn’t a college course—there’s a mega-mix at the end, rather than an exam. But by reframing and reclaiming the narrative, Marlow, Moss and their talented cast show that herstory is alive, well and waiting to be discovered.

Photos: Joan Marcus