Is “SIX” the new “Cats”? That may seem a silly question, for how can you compare a relatively new revue full of arena-ready pop about the 16th-century wives of English monarch Henry VIII with a 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based upon some TS Eliot poetry about, well, cats?
Yet, after experiencing national touring productions of the two shows on consecutive nights — “Cats” at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre, “SIX” at St. Paul’s Ordway — I can say they have a lot in common. Each English is decidedly at its source, doesn’t really have a plot, and is basically a music and dance revue in which individual characters step forth to introduce themselves in song.
So could “SIX” become as successful as “Cats,” history’s fourth-longest-running Broadway musical? Based upon Wednesday’s performance at the Ordway, I’d say it’s a good possibility. For one thing, “SIX” is quite attuned to the current high-stimulation zeitgeist, rocking, rapping and dancing its way through an exhilarating 80 minutes ideal for the short-attention-span set. And it’s unrelentingly fun.
By comparison, “Cats” (established 1982) could seem something of a theatrical dinosaur, slogging toward the exit like its nostalgic aging felines, Grizabella and Asparagus. But the production visiting Minneapolis won’t allow the musical to be relegated to relic status, as its dance numbers are full of energy, enthusiasm and excellently executed choreography.
So take your pick between them and you likely won’t be disappointed, although “SIX” is definitely the hotter property right now, and for good reason.
Three years ago, Twin Citizens were among the first Americans to experience “SIX.” After debuting at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, this creation of a couple of Cambridge University students went on to a run in London’s West End before some American producers assembled a Broadway-bound stateside version with brief runs in a few cities, including an Ordway stop in December of 2019. That production (with the same six actors) went on to win Tonys earlier this year for its score and costumes.
While it has a lot of flash and dazzle, it’s actually a fairly simple show to stage, which bodes well for its longevity. Henry’s wives are introduced in a kind of “American Idol” format in which the six women sing out their tales of woe in a “My trauma’s worse than your trauma” competition.
Backed by a versatile all-woman band, their tunes run the gamut from Latin-flavored dance pop to driving rock and roll to belted ballads, and each of the six performers sells her song splendidly. They also slickly pull off Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s complex choreography, and demonstrate delightful cast chemistry on the comical dating-app spoof, “House of Holbein.”
If it were indeed a televised competition, I’m guessing that Amina Faye’s Jane Seymour would win, just because heartbroken ballads tend to triumph in such settings. But the up-tempo saga of sexual abuse delivered by Aline Mayagoitia’s Katherine Howard packs its own punch.
“Cats” follows a similar structure of song-and-dance one-upmanship, but composer Andrew Lloyd Webber taps into a wider range of musical styles as he sets Eliot’s poetry, bowing to traditional musical theater conventions like a big tap-dance number and a Vaudeville-flavored duo. But it also has a show-stopping heartbroken ballad (“Memory”), ably belted by Tayler Harris in this production. Other standouts include Hank Santos’ swaggeringly athletic Rum Tum Tugger and John Anker Bow’s affecting Asparagus.
Catch both shows and you’ll get a fine history lesson on how musical theater has evolved over 40 years.
IF YOU GO
when: ThroughNov. 6
where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
tickets: $168.50-$34.50, available at 651-224-4222 or Ordway.org
Capsule: Modern pop meets the Tudor era in unfailingly fun fashion.
when: Through Sunday
where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Capsule: An entertaining high-energy take on a contemporary classic.