Is it possible that Lady Di might have loved “Diana, The Musical”? We’re talking about the princess who surprised Covent Garden with a duet to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” a brash and unsettling marriage of cultures high and low. But the almost impressively artless new Broadway musical from “Memphis” creators Joe DiPietro and David Bryan — which does plenty of its own speculation about the dead — lacks any similar claim to daring, originality or taste.
There is something audacious about this musical’s suggestion that the people’s princess belongs to the people, by way of the popular medium’s basest, bluntest, most blatantly pandering form. Those who’ve watched “Diana” on Netflix, where a filmed version of the stage show was released in October, know it’s unnerving — in the uncanny way of a wax museum come to life, Kool-Aid pulsing through veins instead of blood.
Even casual observers of the late Princess of Wales and her legacy will recognize most of what is dutifully paraded onto the Longacre Theatre stage. Diana Spencer (played by Jeanna de Waal), still a kindergarten teacher, first catching the eye of Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf). The ever-present Camilla (Erin Davie), a plot engine for the latter’s philandering and the former’s jealousy. And, of course, the reigning monarch (Judy Kaye, admirably overcoming the absurdity of Queen Elizabeth II bursting into song). And who could forget the paparazzi?
All of the principals do well by impossible roles, smartly steering away from impersonation (though de Waal does occasionally tilt her head just so, while Hartrampf’s brow can’t help but furrow). Combining soft warmth and rough candor, de Waal creates an appropriately receptive canvas for the Diana of public imagination. Costumes by William Ivey Long are designed for the cheers of recognition they elicit, flashy proof of the production’s reliance on familiarity.
DiPietro and Bryan distill the presumed attitudes and known incidents of Diana’s royal life down to their most inane, legible in song titles alone: “The World Fell in Love” with a “Pretty, Pretty Girl” who was “Underestimated.” On an early date with Charles, to a restrained Bach recital, Diana breaks into a rock daydream, proclaiming her affinity for the likes of Elton John and Freddie Mercury. Other acts she fancies, including Air Supply, Duran Duran and Dire Straits, are also name-checked in a hopeful and self-referential nod to the musical’s actual score.
It would be grossly indecent to these artists (yes, even to Queen) to draw comparison between their work and “Diana.” Musically, Bryan’s score is relentlessly generic, a mix of mid-tempo character jalopies and ballads one might flip past on easy listening FM. (Bryan is the keyboardist and a founding member of Bon Jovi.) The score might be entirely forgettable if not for the remarkable crudeness that leaps, like a morbid jack-in-the-box, from so many of Bryan and DiPietro’s lyrics: “A marriage built on lies,” Diana sings, “The depression, the bulimia/ Each day I’m brutalized/ Assaulted by the media.”
It could be camp — more sordid, more soapy, more altogether mad — if the creative team knew how to reconcile the ridiculousness of their project with the gravity of its true story.
One of the musical’s more unfortunate misfires is holding out a failed promise to engage with the origins of modern celebrity, of which Diana was the catalyst. Flashbulbs are the production’s primary means of generating visual tension and intrigue (the lighting design is by Natasha Katz), but “Diana” has little if anything to say about fame — except that Diana learned how to use the press to her advantage, and then it killed her. Given how eager our culture is to reevaluate its past consumption of famous women, that missed opportunity is a shame.
Director Christopher Ashley, who heads La Jolla Playhouse where this production premiered, hands in a seamless and unfussy physical staging, on set designer David Zinn’s royal-blue colonnade, an obvious gilded prison. But Ashley, a Tony winner for “Come From Away,” offers no solution for the musical’s narrative inertia, and Kelly Devine’s choreography, a stock blend of mugging and scurrying, doesn’t help. Though Diana’s life ended in a frenzy, the musical whimpers to a conclusion, succumbing to its own lack of purpose.
“Diana” would not seem to benefit by comparison to recent prestige portrayals of the princess, namely Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” which has made an Oscar frontrunner of Kristen Stewart, and “The Crown,” with its acclaimed attention to accuracy and luxe detail. Rather than dredging up a well-worn story with fresh insight, distinct style or any discernible aim beyond ticket-buyer fascination, “Diana” makes the case for its subject as pure IP — a bid that’s either ahead of its time or just grotesque.
Musical theater is no stranger to historical figures reimagined with a bit of pluck. Consider the bold creative license of “Assassins” or “Hamilton,” the sizzle of “Evita.” What makes “Diana” so perverse is its refiguring of a real-life tragedy — with survivors who remain in the public eye — into a sort of limp and misshapen rom-com.
Maybe coddling the feelings of royal scions shouldn’t be a creative concern. But even setting aside whether Diana’s family, and her memory, deserve better — don’t we?