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Tony-winning musical ‘Six’ brings girl power to the National Theatre

The irreverent, cathartic take on history reimagines King Henry VIII’s wives as pop-star queens

The tour of the Tony-winning musical “Six” runs at the National Theatre through Sept. 4. (Joan Marcus)
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The brilliant and gladdening “Six: The Musical” thumbs its fetching nose at Tudor England’s old boys network and reserves a few blissfully scornful finger-wags for our own.

That cocky attitude makes Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s internationally celebrated, Tony-winning (best original score, best costume design) pop musical both cheering and cathartic in its current run at the National Theatre. An irreverent recontextualization of history conceived as a girl-power pop concert, “Six” reimagines King Henry VIII’s wives as preening divas of the Spotify generation, who scoff and reminisce in catchy songs that recall Beyoncé, Adele, Britney Spears and more.

In real life, Henry’s consorts may have been prey to misogynist social standards and a fickle monarch’s whims. But for 80 tongue-in-cheek minutes, “Six” wrests control of the short- and long-term historical narrative, reimagining patriarchal oppression as feminist resilience, rebellion and triumph.

Those are the vibes that resonate in “Six,” directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage, as the mic-wielding characters sing, prowl, bicker and execute choreographer Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s pitch-perfect voguing choreography. Providing accompaniment is a terrific all-female band (“The Ladies in Waiting”) onstage, not far from a curved rear wall that glimmers now with Gothic windows, now with moving-light evocations of Tinder swipes. (Emma Bailey is scenic designer; Tim Deiling devised the often-jewel-toned lighting.)

Against this backdrop, dressed in glittering, stadium-worthy costumes, the queens initially compete to tell the most infuriating story. For example, in the rousing “No Way,” the fierce Catherine of Aragon (Khaila Wilcoxon) recalls resisting Henry’s push to divorce her. But she has to cede ground to the ditzy Anne Boleyn (Storm Lever), who’s still majorly irked about, you know, being beheaded.

As each wife — including the earnest Jane Seymour (Jasmine Forsberg) and the sultry-and-abused Katherine Howard (Didi Romero) — steps up with a number, the writers keep the tone varied without losing the overall mood of defiance. Anna of Cleves (Olivia Donalson) swaggers around to the cocksure “Get Down,” bragging about the palace she lives in after her relatively amicable split from the sovereign. And it’s a hugely moving surprise when Catherine Parr (Gabriela Carrillo), whose turn in the spotlight might have been anticlimactic, given that she survived Henry, breaks into a tender torch song for a lover the king forced her to abandon — an 11th-hour number that helps the show reach a satisfying conclusion.

Throughout, the filtering of bygone times through impish anachronism — complete with droll references that might do an AP History exam proud — gives “Six” the sheen of a polished poniard. In the hilarious, house-music-flavored “Haus of Holbein,” the queens don sunglasses and ruffs to salute the 16th-century portraitist Hans Holbein the Younger. And the turbulence of the Reformation gets a lot of arch nods, which are all the funnier in the slangy phrasing of queens who are essentially preening Billboard goddesses. “Everybody chill/ It’s totes God’s will,” Anne Boleyn deadpans in a song that touches on Henry’s break with the Pope.

Working such impudent alchemy on long-ago established facts, with diverse casting that enhances its up-to-the-moment vibe, “Six” feels desperately necessary at a time when a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court — not two miles from the National Theatre — has put many women’s autonomy in doubt. Hal’s wives didn’t get a lot of self-determination either, of course. But since you couldn’t have staged this musical at his royal court, “Six” is tuneful, sassy proof that culture changes. And over the long arc of history, this show imagines, it’s impossible to keep formidable women down.

“Six: The Musical,” by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage; costume design, Gabriella Slade; sound, Paul Gatehouse; orchestrations, Tom Curran; music supervision (U.S.), Roberta Duchak; associate director, Megan E. Farley; associate choreographer, Eliza Ohman; music supervision, Joe Beighton. 80 minutes. $65-$150. Through Sept. 4 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. BroadwayAtTheNational.com.

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