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Charles and Diana: The Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Nothing tantalizes - or frustrates - more than an enigma, and few public figures did both quite the way Princess Diana did. Even nearly eight years after her death, she still lingers in the hearts of many who were attracted to her grace, beauty, and charm, as well as the troubled life that ended years (or decades) before it should have. What's clear, though, is that almost no one knows who the real Diana was.

This mystery has invigorated writers and celebrity watchers for years, and there's been no general consensus, beyond her desire for - at least - understanding. But whether she could actually be understood, or whether we're simply projecting our own desires to untangle a complex life, is something that's never been made clear, and punctuates many dramatic accounts of her life and death, including those in Charles & Diana: The Musical.

The good news about this show at the Midtown International Theatre Festival is that librettist and composer Lewis Papier and lyricist Mary Sullivan Struzik show great reverence and respect for the title characters, as well as the other members of the British royal family. The bad news is that Papier, Struzik, and director Clyde Baldo have made the window into the soul of the "people's princess" no less foggy than it was before, by depicting Charles and Diana as little more than prisoners of historical inevitability.

This is obvious from the first scene, set immediately after the 1997 car crash that took Diana's life, when the princess (Amanda Ladd) meets Vicar Bones (Alan Ostroff) outside the gates of heaven. He allows her the opportunity to live her life again and attempt to correct her previous mistakes, with the understanding that if she fails, she'll be consigned to spend eternity in hell. Diana accepts the challenge, but soon discovers the task is more difficult than she initially imagined.

She's immediately attracted to the power and awkward glamour possessed by Charles (Robert Resnick), and they connect immediately. But she still proves irritating to his parents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (Tracy Rosten and Kenneth Garner), who don't see her as capable of seeing through her duty to the monarchy. As more of Diana's attempts to refashion her life are thwarted, she finds herself being separated from the duty-bound Charles very much like the first time.

What should be a straightforward story is easily thrown off-kilter; there's little balance between the adventurous Diana of the first act and the repressed Diana of the second, and the framing device is used too infrequently and sketchily to be effective. More troubling is the score, which sounds like a combination of rejected 1980s sitcom underscoring and generic parody of English rock. The gently pounding and fiercely repetitive strains that constitute the entire score make an impression only when quoting more familiar tunes, like "Britannia Rules the Waves."

So bland is the music - which is orchestrated electronically (and not at all evocatively) and impersonally blared through the sound system - that Charles and Diana's tentative ballads sound no different from Elizabeth and Philip's character songs or even the sensually throbbing "A Princess On Her Own," in which Diana explores the other pleasures that Bones and his Vicarettes (Natalie Delena, Kiirstin Kuhi, and Amy Russ) have to offer. The score's deficiencies are generally mirrored in the performances; Ostroff playfully sucks a fair amount of juice from his zesty role, but the others provide only passable imitations of their real-life counterparts while providing little distinctive, recognizable style of their own.

The exception comes from Kate Greer, who crisply plays the determined yet passionate Camilla Parker-Bowles, and is believable not only as Charles's long-time flame, but a theatrical stand-in for the real woman. Decked in a riding outfit, Greer provides as much of the heart and soul of English nobility as the musical ever finds, and though her songs are generally forgettable (her duet with Charles comparing their relationship to those in old movies is especially weak), she plays them with a fervor and conviction that seem out of place in otherwise documentary surroundings.

Unfortunately, this isn't Camilla: The Musical, and Greer's performance only highlights Ladd's inability to capture the firm, smoldering fire that powered the real princess's charisma. Without that, Diana is even harder to get inside and truly see as a woman both a pawn of more powerful forces and a self-made icon who was adored by millions. Charles & Diana, as with the people it's based on, ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers.

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Charles and Diana: The Musical
WorkShop Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor, just west off 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
The performance schedule is as follows:
Saturday, July 23 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, July 29 at 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 30 at 1:00 p.m.
Wednesday, August 3 at 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, August 6 at 11:00 a.m.
Tickets online: SmartTix