To answer the question that absolutely no one with a Netflix account and an interest in Broadway musicals is asking: Why, yes, “Diana, The Musical” is every bit as abysmal as rumored. Social media was briefly aflame with withering descriptions when the show first began streaming in October, so the Broadway opening — long delayed by the pandemic — almost feels like a pointless afterthought. The wedding cake that was flavorless to begin with is now both flavorless and stale.
The question more pertinent to those who treasure fond memories of the worst musicals they have seen: Is “Diana” so bad that it simply must be seen, the Playbill kept pristine for future display? Is “Diana” the “Carrie” de nos jours?
The answer to both is a qualified yes.
The musical, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by David Bryan — the creators of the also-awful Tony-winning musical “Memphis” — is rife with moments that will make you titter or howl, or, more respectfully, stifle the titters and howls. I’m looking at you, Barbara Cartland! (The prolific romance novelist was Diana’s step-grandmother, and makes a couple of loopy cameo appearances by an uncredited Judy Kaye, who also plays Queen Elizabeth.) So, sure, Broadway jackals, get your tickets while you can. History is being made at the Longacre Theatre. Briefly, one suspects.
On the other hand, “Diana” slouches toward tedium quickly, so that even the ghoulish fun of witnessing a magnificently misbegotten show palls by the end of the first act. By the conclusion of the second — which attempts rather bizarrely to turn Diana’s tragic death into some sort of triumphant apotheosis — the titters have all been frittered away, and you’re left with two and a half hours you’ll never get back.
A musical biography of Princess Diana was probably inevitable, given the seemingly ceaseless mania for anything and everything relating to the British royal family. But only a work of true brilliance could expect to compete with the hugely popular Netflix series “The Crown,” or the new movie “Spencer,” for which Kristen Stewart may well win an Oscar for Not Consorting with Vampires.
But brilliant “Diana” is, ahem, not. Employing the kind of bland, minimally melodic pop-rock that had its heyday on Broadway with the British invasion of yore (perhaps it’s an homage?), the show slogs through the well-known life story of the “People’s Princess” in workmanlike fashion, displaying nary a teacup-full of fresh insight.
The musical, directed rather busily by Christopher Ashley, focuses primarily on the love-triangle aspect of Diana’s unhappy marriage to Prince Charles. As it ended, the real Diana famously gave an interview in which she said there were “three of us” in the marriage, adding with a wit that the musical’s Diana never matches, “So it was a bit crowded.” That third person — I know you know — is Camilla Parker-Bowles (Erin Davie), whom Charles loved before, during and after his marriage to Diana. She is nicely portrayed by Davie as being an initially sympathetic supporter of Diana who recognizes that Charles must stiffen that upper lip and make the right kind of marriage — especially as she herself is already married.
Enter the comely naif, Diana, portrayed by Jeanna de Waal as, well, a comely naif, who all too soon realizes she’s made a bad bargain, entering into an alliance that was born of cynicism on the royal family’s part, and fond and foolish hope on hers. She realizes her error during a Bach recital, when her pop-loving heart rebels and she sings:
All right, I’m no intellect
But maybe there’s a discotheque
Where the Prince could hear some Prince
And we could all get funkadelic.
It gives one pause to realize that it took two collaborators to concoct lyrics of that caliber.
To her credit, de Waal gives a valiantly earnest performance, and puts across the score’s ballads and anthems with admirable vocal agility. Because of this, you eventually begin to feel almost as sorry for the actor as you do for the character she is portraying. It’s a bit meta, and not in a fun way. As Prince Charles, Roe Hartrampf mostly whines to mummy, upbraids poor Diana for being “common,” canoodles with Camilla and wears an ample array of double-breasted suits.
The media, a significant character in the show, is mostly represented by a chorus of paparazzi flapping around in trenchcoats as they mercilessly hound Diana and Charles, executing most of the faintly ludicrous choreography of Kelly Devine, and spouting some more immortally dire lyrics: “Better than a Guinness/Better than a wank/Snatch a few pics/It’s money in the bank.”
Among the more dismaying aspects of the show is the creators’ inability to infuse much warmth or pathos in the title character. She’s more petulant and put-upon than anything else, and while several nods are made to her philanthropic work and to her natural connection to the public, the climax of the first act is a splashy number in which Diana dumps all the frowsty floral frocks in her closet and goes on a manic frenzy of designer getups. The idea seems to be that she asserted her independence primarily by choosing to frequent Harvey Nichols. And what many people most fondly remember Diana for — her deep maternal affection for her two boys — gets short shrift; indeed the boys do not even appear in the show.
The only other character of note is the Queen, played by the ever-wonderful Kaye, although her less-than-choice role is really that of a scolding human handbag. Exuding imperiousness from every pore, Kaye brings some nice touches of comic asperity to the proceedings, as the Queen watches with bleak dismay as the fairy-tale marriage she had helped orchestrate turns into something out of the Brothers Grimm. But everything and everyone this musical touches is somehow vulgarized. At one point the Queen snipes at Diana, “In the old days, we would’ve simply chopped off your head and been done with it,” adding wistfully, “I sometimes miss the old days.”
I suspect the Queen — the real one — would not be amused. Certainly this queen wasn’t.
“Diana” opened at the Longacre Theatre on Nov. 17, 2021.
Review Photo: Matthew Murphy
Creative: Book by Joe DiPietro; Music by David Bryan; Lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro; Directed by Christopher Ashley; Choreographed by Kelly Devine; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by William Ivey Long; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Gareth Owen.
Producers: Grove Entertainment, Frank Marshall, The Araca Group, Two Guys Productions, Barbara Whitman, Parrothead Productions, Richard Winkler & Alan Shorr, Wendy Gillespie & Karen Tanz, Jeremiah J. Harris & Darren P. DeVerna, James L. Nederlander, The Shubert Organization, Betsy Dollinger, Marlene & Gary Cohen, John H. Tyson, Linda G. Scott, Rodney Rigby, Yonge Street Theatricals, Leah Dagen & Cynthia Stroum, Arlene Scanlan & Witzend Productions, Molly Morris, Patty Baker, HoriPro, Inc., Brad & Louise Edgerton, Margot Astrachan & Specialechau, Hunter Arnold, PEAK6, Shapiro Jensen Schroeder & Grove Theatrical and La Jolla Playhouse.
Cast: Jeanna de Waal, Erin Davie, Roe Hartrampf, Judy Kaye, Zach Adkins, Ashley Andrews, Austen Danielle Bohmer, Holly Ann Butler, Lauren E.J. Hamilton, Shaye B. Hopkins, André Jordan, Gareth Keegan, Nathan Lucrezio, Tomás Matos, Chris Medlin, Anthony Murphy, Laura Stracko and Bethany Ann Tesarck.