** / *****
There’s no question that America’s ongoing fascination with Great Britain’s Lady Diana Spencer is quite real.
While popular enough during her lifetime, her catastrophic death propelled her, and her story, into the realm of myth. Countless books, articles and films (in particular the very excellent Netflix series, “The Crown”) have examined, in depth, the tragedy that was her life. But perhaps bringing her story to life in the form of a Broadway musical has taken it a step too far. Diana, now playing at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway, has taken this twisted wreck of a life story and made it . . . laughable—though there are few, if any, intentional laughs to be had in director Christopher Ashley’s tepid production.
With music and lyrics by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, Diana has a pop/rock undercurrent that doesn’t serve the subject matter particularly well. When Diana herself (Jeanna De Waal), feeling overwhelmed by her new responsibilities as Princess, escapes into the music of her era (Prince, Elton John), musically, we don’t feel that escape. The Royal World has the same score as “Normal Diana” World. When hubby Prince Charles castigates her taste in music, it’s hard, musically, to understand where he’s coming from. What’s more, Bryan’s rock-inspired songs are uninspired and lacking in originality (for example, one song sounds more than a bit like The Who’s “You Better You Bet”). Rock power chords are fine in a large arena, but they rarely add spice to a Broadway stage. Just look at the cadavers of jukebox musicals like “Bat Out of Hell” that litter Broadway’s back alleys.
Diana, however, doesn’t suffer from poor performances. On the contrary, Judy Kaye plays a dynamic Queen Elizabeth and Holly Ann Butler’s performance as Diana’s sister Sarah invites more interest about her character than any of the central characters. And Erin Davie’s Camilla Parker Bowles is far more compelling than the real Camilla. But some casting choices are questionable: Roe Hartrampf doesn’t sell his Prince Charles one bit (his accent is decidedly un-Royal), and De Waal lacks that je ne sais quoi that we could always see in the corner of Diana’s eye. De Waal sings well, but little things are irksome. The first half Diana, complete with a difficult-to-believe, glued-on wig, is drab and unintentionally lifeless. We see no evidence even of the personality of the Diana who emerges, fashionable and far prettier, in Act II. Her transformation, in Joe DiPietro’s linear, feckless book, is neither foreshadowed nor believable.
If you find yourself at Diana after all, do stay for the second act, as it picks up considerably. There’s a delightful scene with Judy Kaye playing romance novelist Barbara Cartland (purportedly a favorite of young Diana), urging her to break out of her shell. All in pink, and risqué as a romance novelist ought to be, Cartland tells Diana there should be excitement and sex in her life. And she finds it in the form of a shirtless, studly Captain James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan).
The overriding problem is that Diana is essentially lifeless. Large set pieces feel old and silly (like the dancing paparazzi in overcoats and fedoras), though it never fully skates over into becoming utterly camp, which it threatens to do on several occasions. Perhaps a deliberately schmaltzy production might have been more rewarding in the long run.