Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon

DramaWatch: Six sassy singing wives

Henry VIII's wives take the stage in Portland in the musical "Six"; Bag&Baggage's "Red Velvet," Box of Clowns, stinky cheese, Shakespeare in Elgin, time out for kids' shows, more.

|

The Broadway touring company of “Six: The Musical” comes to Portland. Photo: Joan Marcus

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome … the Spice Ghosts!

Oops! Sorry. That’s not right. 

The show coming to the Keller Auditorium for eight performances beginning Tuesday, July 25, actually is called Six: the Musical and its starring characters are the long-dead women known collectively to popular history as the (mostly) ill-fated “six wives of Henry VIII.”

But – this being what’s been called “one of the first true post-Hamilton musicals” – these representations of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and the rest aren’t models of Tudor decorum but strong and sassy pop-star archetypes, telling their woeful tales in the high-energy vernacular of the TikTok era. 

It was originally created by students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss for the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society as a show for the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but don’t let that make you think it’s either academic or avant-garde. Mainstreaming its chosen slice of history for a modern audience, Six has gone on to be a big hit in London’s West End, in Australia at the Sydney Opera House, in a production for ships of the Norwegian Cruise Line (which, uh, isn’t actually Norwegian), and on Broadway. Tickets for the touring production’s upcoming Portland run sold so well that a lottery has been instituted for the scarce seats remaining.

Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune called it “unequivocally, a really great idea for a commercial musical,” and a show that “has all the makings of a cultish attraction that people want to attend again and again.”

The idea isn’t complicated. “More than a concert and less than a musical, it has a thin, peppy conceit,” summarized a review in the Guardian. “(T)hese queens have gathered posthumously, with relevant heads intact, to each sing a song detailing her mistreatment at the meaty hands of Henry. As the ladies explain in an opening number, this is a contest. The most miserable woman wins.”

Sponsor

Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

That is, a musical revue becomes the vessel for a battle of comparative matrimonial tragedy. Past pain provides present inspiration, or at least street cred. “The queen that was dealt the worst hand,” they sing, “shall be the one to lead the band.” Or sit at the head or their spectral royal table, or something. But of course, within a thick pop-culture frame that glories in “American Idol”-like artifice, each character is presented as a diva in her own right, modeled unabashedly on the likes of Beyoncé, Adele, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and Alicia Keys.

Six may have adopted some of the beat-besotted revisionist methods of Hamilton, but by most reports it makes no attempt at a similar artistic heft.

As Jesse Green, a critic for The New York /Times, put it, “That Six puts just such a rewritten history onstage is a great thing for a pop musical to do. Let’s not quibble about its accuracy. … It’s not a treatise but a lark and a provocation — and a work of blatantly commercial theater.”

The flattened stage

Pop history – two approaches:

Opening

Nik Whitcomb, who arrived in Hillsboro several months ago as the new artistic director for Bag & Baggage, at last presents his first full production, and it seems that he could hardly have made a more apt programming choice. 

Red Velvet, a 2012 play by British writer Lolita Chakrabarti, centers on an incident in 1833 when Ira Aldridge, a Black American actor working in England, took the title role in Othello after the legendary Edmund Kean fell ill during a show at Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, and controversy and complications ensue.

“Red Velvet” director Nik Whitcomb. Photo courtesy Bag&Baggage.

That fits in with the Bag & Baggage penchant for plays that meld classical subject matter, especially Shakespeare, with contemporary relevance foregrounded. A major theater putting a Black man in a leading role (even as a Moor) raises hackles, while at the same time outside the theater, protests rage over the Slavery Abolition Act; cue the parallels to recent American racial-justice protests alongside equity issues in American theater. Yet even as a reviewer for the website Chicago on the Aisle has called it “a full-body immersion in the cold, foul waters of racial bigotry,” the play also is theater about theater, extrapolating from the Kean-to-Aldridge transition an investigation into the nature of acting and the history of its methods and values. Thematically, it all sounds like an overflowing platter for Whitcomb’s first serving.

Sponsor

Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

***

In a way that few other art forms do, theater often provides the public with fascinating views into the developmental process of the work. That process is the raison d’etre of Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s new Atelier Festival, which includes performances of Mishelle Apalategui’s play Downward Facing, the particularly long journey of which is the subject of a fine new article by  ArtsWatcher Bobby Bermea.  Fuse describes the show – which deals with gentrification, homelessness and “LGBTQIA+ relationships” – as “a poignant montage of individuals who have no home to return to.”

***

Run! Run, as fast as you can! It’s your chance to see the Stinky Cheese Man!

As in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, stage production inspired by the wonderfully off-kilter children’s picture book by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, wherein familiar fairy-tale stories are subverted in a variety of entertaining ways. Northwest Children’s Theatre’s brisk hourlong production perfumes the air of the Judy, the company’s new downtown home. 

***

The Elgin Opera House, home of the Opera House Shakespeare Festival: Photo: finetooth/Wikimedia Commons

Last summer’s inaugural Opera House Shakespeare Festival, in the small, charming Eastern Oregon town of Elgin, offered proof of concept – both in the quality of the productions (low-budget yet smart and compelling) and the reception of the community. Here’s hoping year two builds on the success and public profile of the event.

Sponsor

Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

The festival is primarily the baby of Grant Turner, formerly the artistic director of Portland’s scrappy and well-respected Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Turner directs productions of Richard II and a Henry IV that compress the two parts of that history into a single evening. Jonathan Cullen, a charismatic veteran British-born actor who has worked at the National Theatre and in the West End, co-directs the Richard and stars in both plays. The festival also boasts an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew set for outdoor performances.

And if you consider the Bard a burden, the next couple of weekends also feature a music festival (including an appearance by Animotion singer/guitarist Bill Wadhams) and a production of Disney’s Frozen, Jr., directed by Elgin Opera House executive artistic director Terry Hale. 

One night only

Jeff Desautels and Laura Loy of Box of Clowns.

During the CoHo Clown Festival late last summer, I went to CoHo Theater one night, mostly to see a brief showing of a work-in-progress by Emily Newton, who also performs with the CoHo Clown Cohort. But the big joy of the night, to me, was a group I’d not encountered before: Box of Clowns. A duo that mixed fluid physical humor into a clever conceptual framework, they were a thoroughly engaging delight.

Maybe experience had something to do with that. It turns out they’ve been at this for a while. This Saturday, Jeff Desautels and Laura Loy mark their anniversary, returning to the CoHo with BoxFest: Celebrating 10 Years with Box of Clowns, joined by Winston Bischof, Majd Murad, Summer Olsson, and Ari Rapkin as opening acts.

Closing

Fancy a laugh or a song? There’s plenty of it on offer, but time is running out on the 5th Annual Portland Sketch Comedy Festival at the Siren Theater, The Gods of Comedy at Clackamas Rep, and a couple of musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Broadway Rose in Tigard and The Music Man at the Shedd Institute in Eugene.

Season’s greetings

Corrib Theatre has announced its three productions for the 2023-’24 season, including Woman and Scarecrow, a supernatural deathbed drama, by Marina Carr; Spear, a perspective-flipping look at issues of race and white fragility by the Black Irish playwright CN Smith; and – perhaps most intriguing for its local provenance – a Corrib commission by Portland actor/writer Ken Yoshikawa, From a Hole in the Ground, which draws on the fairytales and graveyard stories of Irish folklore.

Kids in time out

Oregon Children’s Theatre, whose most recent show was “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” in May, is taking a break from mainstage productions. Photo: Owen Carey

 Although the Covid pandemic at long last has passed (arguably), the lingering effects continue to be hard on theater companies. The latest and nearest case in point: Oregon Children’s Theatre, which recently announced that it won’t be mounting any mainstage productions this fall.

Sponsor

A recent press release listed the variety of setbacks – pandemic-related and otherwise – that OCT has faced in the past few years: “sharp decline in revenue, hesitant audiences, the nationwide elimination of Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Program (which financially supported OCT’s in-school services for over 15 years), staffing and leadership changes, the loss and destruction of our previous headquarters and black box theater on NE Sandy Blvd., and rising costs in our field to produce high-quality performances. Therefore, we are taking this critical moment for OCT to pause our Mainstage programming for the fall of 2023.”

“While trying to maintain status quo might be the easiest route,” the announcement quotes Board Chair Dre Slaman, “this brief pause will allow us to be thoughtful and intentional about what comes next and evaluate the steps to get there, both artistically and financially, with the aim of coming back stronger than ever at the beginning of 2024.”

Left unclear is exactly when, and with what, the company plans to take the stage once again. Meanwhile, classes, summer camps, in-school programs and productions by the celebrated Young Professionals Company of teen actors all will continue.

The best line I read this week

“If you’re suicidal and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’”

– from a short story by Lorrie Moore, as quoted in The New Yorker.

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Sponsor

Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

SHARE:
Corrib Theatre From a Hole in the Ground Contemporary Irish Theatre Alberta House Portland Oregon
Kalakendra Indian Classical Instrumental Music First Congregational Church Portland Oregon
Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon
Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon
Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon
Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon
Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon
Newport Visual and Performing Arts Newport Oregon Coast
Kalakendra Indian Classical Instrumental Music First Congregational Church Portland Oregon
Triangle Productions Perfect Arrangement Portland Oregon
NW Dance Project Moving Stories Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon
Oregon Repertory Singers Finding Light 50th Season Portland Oregon
Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon
Imago Theatre Carol Triffle Mission Gibbons Portland Oregon
Maryhill Museum of Art Goldendale Washington
Portland State University College of the Arts
Bonnie Bronson 2024 Fellow Wendy Red Star Reed College Reception Kaul Auditorium Foyer Portland Oregon
PassinArt Theatre and Portland Playhouse present Yohen Brunish Theatre Portland Oregon
Pacific Maritime Heritage Center Prosperity of the Sea Lincoln County Historical Society Newport Oregon Coast
Portland Art Museum Virtual Sneakers to Cutting Edge Kicks Portland Oregon
High Desert Museum Sasquatch Central Oregon
Oregon Cultural Trust donate
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.