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Broadway Reviews

Diana, The Musical

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.
Cast: Jeanna de Waal, Roe Hartrampf, Erin Davie, Judy Kaye, Zach Adkins, Ashley Andrews, Austen Danielle Bohmer, Holly Ann Butler, Richard Gatta, Alex Hairston, Lauren E. J. Hamilton, Shaye B. Hopkins, André Jordan, Gareth Keegan, Libby Lloyd, Nathan Lucrezio, Tomás Matos, Chris Medlin, Anthony Murphy, Kristen Faith Oei, Laura Stracko, Bethany Ann Tesarck, and Michael Williams.
Theater: Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street

Roe Hartrampf and Jeanna de Waal
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Diana, The Musical, opening tonight at the Longacre Theatre, is an unfortunate mix of stylish production values and talented performers yoked to a muddled plot and forgettable songs. And while it is being promoted as "the story you only thought you knew," it is exactly the story you thought you knew, albeit a watered-down and de-sensationalized version of the troubled marriage and early death of its subject, Diana, Princess of Wales, aka "the people's princess."

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?

Erin Davie, Roe Hartrampf, Judy Kaye, Jeanna de Waal,
and Cast

Photo by Matthew Murphy
For a show that is purportedly focused on the trials and tribulations of a martyred princess, Diana, The Musical misses the mark in so many ways. Diana's struggles with depression, her suicide attempts, and even her death are dealt with ever so delicately, while the depictions of Charles, Camilla, and even Queen Elizabeth (Judy Kaye) are quite even-handed. Truthfully, with a bit of rearrangement, you could have called the show Camilla, given Camilla Parker Bowles's ubiquitous and often dominant presence throughout. And strangely enough in this all-too-strange show, it is Queen Elizabeth and not Diana who has the 11 o'clock number, something called "An Officer's Wife," which has QE2 fondly recalling her pre-royal days, as if she hadn't been born a royal, the daughter of King George VI. Judy Kaye sings the hell out of it, accompanied by a small military cadre, but it is a head-scratcher.

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!