Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 17, 2021
Diana. Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Music and lyrics by David Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Music arrangements and supervision by Ian Eisendrath. Choreography by Kelly Devine. Scenic design by David Zinn. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Hair design by Paul Huntley. Makeup design by Angelina Avallone. Associate director Dontee Kiehn. Associate choreographer Charlie Sutton. Music direction by Ted Arthur. Orchestrations by John Clancy. Music coordinator Michael Aarons.
This is an odd sort of show in so many ways, a thing of shreds and patches that comes off like a poorly written jukebox bio musical, but without the nostalgia-stirring songs. It's as if it had been hastily assembled on a too-tight deadline by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics). Whether this was the case or not, neither book nor lyrics nor bland-as-mushy-peas music provides anything to celebrate. Mind you, this all comes from the same pair who collaborated on the musical Memphis, which took home 2010 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Score. It's unlikely lightning will strike again for them at the end of this season.
Diana, The Musical is the sort of musical where you might come in humming the plot. The first act, in particular, contains zero surprises and little of interest beyond Diana's many, many costume changes. It merely ticks off what even the most casual absorber of Diana lore would already know. Nineteen-year-old Lady Diana Spencer (Jeanna de Waal), working as a kindergarten assistant at a posh school in London, is considered by virtue of her family background and good looks to be a potential candidate for marriage to 32-year-old Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf). As we all most likely know, Charles is already involved with the apparent love of his life, the somewhat inconveniently married Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie). Since Camilla approves of this marriage-of-royal-convenience, all that remains is for Diana to say yes.
It may have been, as the play suggests, that Diana had fairy tales or the romance novels of her step-grandmother Barbara Cartland in her head when she agreed, but this was never a match made in heaven for either of them. Nevertheless, wedding bells ensue for Lady Di and Charles, and it all goes downhill from there.
Act two attempts to breathe a bit of panache into the proceedings as Diana gains enough confidence to directly confront her rival Camilla in a number that places the two in what appears to be a boxing ring. (Sample lyrics: "It's the thrilla in Manila but with Diana and Camilla!"). Diana also has a rousing "fuck you" song, in which she dons a little black dress and goes out on the town to pose for the photographers who follow her every move, just as Charles is on television presenting his side of the story of their failing marriage.
It is generally understood that the press and paparazzi had a field day with the pair from their first date to Diana's death in a car crash, but other than an occasional run-in with a group of trench-coated photographers and reporters, the out-of-control tabloidization of their lives is on a par with their own self-serving publicity ventures. It's all so pre-Instagram and rather more tedious than thrilling. Where's that story we only thought we knew?
Setting aside the ineffectual plot, music and lyrics, there are some fine things going on here that deserve to be recognized and acknowledged. To begin with, and despite the less-than-stellar dialog and songs they are forced to express, the cast is uniformly strong, and this includes the hard-working ensemble. Everyone seems to be doing their best to sell the show. It's almost as if they are all auditioning for their next gig. I'm not sure that Judy Kaye is terribly well suited to portray the Queen, but the liveliest moments of the show occur when she pops in as a flamboyant Barbara Cartland. It's almost as if Dame Edna had wandered on stage, which would have been a blessed relief.
Also on the plus side are Kelly Devine's frenetic but tightly controlled and well-danced choreography, David Zinn's set design that makes the gates to Buckingham Palace seem both majestic and appropriately prison-like, and the wide array of costumes that William Ivey Long has provided for our Diana (close to three dozen is my understanding). The production also boasts excellent lighting by Natasha Katz and outstanding sound design by Gareth Owen that provides unusually strong clarity to every spoken and sung word (a mixed blessing, to be sure).
There has been some buzz that the show has the earmarks of a potential cult classic. Apparently audience members at some performances are shouting out to the characters, as if they were attending a production of The Rocky Horror Show. So, who knows? With the right marketing, The Diana Horror Show may be with us for a while. Dammit, Janet!