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Theatre in Review: Diana (Longacre Theatre)

Erin Davie, Roe Hartrampf, Judy Kaye, Jeanna de Waal. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

You've probably read a great deal about Diana -- very little of it adulatory, I'm sure -- but the new musical at the Longacre doesn't definitively lose its mind until just after intermission. Before that, everyone involved maintains a grip, however tenuously, as they guide us through the courtship of Diana Spencer and Prince Charles, their "storybook" wedding, and her rapid disillusionment. The treatment is far from inspired: The pounding rock score feels inappropriate for a tale of palace intrigue and the lyrics are seemingly sourced from an introductory rhyming dictionary, but Broadway has seen worse.

Then the curtain rises on Act II and the number "Here Comes James Hewitt." (He, you will remember, was an army officer and Diana's paramour; their affair was the first in the string of scandals that culminated in the previously unthinkable royal divorce.) Hewitt rises up, shirtless and seated on a saddle; as romance novelist Barbara Cartland -- Diana's step-grandmother -- swoons over his slim stomach and tight muscles, he sings, "I can take you for a ride/All your troubles cast aside/You'll dismount satisfied." Meanwhile the ladies of the chorus all but lunge at him, trilling, "Oh! Oh! Oh! James Hewitt!" Of course, "Hewitt" is rhymed with "let's do it."

Suddenly, all pretense at respectability has been tossed out the window. From there, it's a short, slippery slope to the dinner-party catfight called "the thrilla in Manila/But with Diana and Camilla." Before you know it, Diana is leaking her marital secrets to biographer Andrew Morton; horrified by her dirt-dishing, Andrew gives a candid interview to the BBC, telling his side of the story. What's a princess to do? Taking the advice of Paul Burrell, her butler, she steps out on the night of the broadcast, attending an art gallery opening clad in a "fuckity-fuckity fuck-you dress."

And so, a show that purportedly gives voice to a woman scorned and manipulated gleefully surrenders to its inner Jackie Collins, offering up trashy thrills punctuated with assertive power ballads. Strenuously uplifting one moment and deliriously campy the next, Diana is a musical suffering from poor impulse control. For certain show fans, it will be the season's guilty pleasure; you know who you are.

Indeed, the show's tawdrier moments are all it has going for it; otherwise, it offers nothing new for anyone familiar with any of the biographies, The Crown, or People Magazine. Diana, a guileless, 19-year-old kindergarten helper from a titled family, is hoodwinked into thinking Charles -- at 35, under pressure to marry and produce a family -- is in love with her, but the "romance" is stage-managed by Camilla, Charles once-and-future lover. It's all a ruse to let Charles and Camilla continue their affair, but Diana looks like princess material, so cue the royal wedding. It is, of course, a spectacularly terrible plan: Having nothing in common, the young marrieds bore each other silly. Her innate star power eclipses him in public. She is rightly jealous of Camilla but, haunted by parent's divorce, constantly recommits to saving her marriage; frustrated, she vents her rage in suicide attempts and other instances of self-harm.

All we see of the latter is Diana smashing a mirror with her fist. Joe DiPietro's book avoids the real story's tackiest and most farcical complications, including Charles' tampon fantasies and "Squidgygate," the leaked phone calls in which Diana sang the blues to the gin heir James Gilbey. Also scrubbed from the record (aside from oh-oh-oh James Hewitt) is Diana's string of lovers, up to and including Dodi Fayed, killed with her in the traffic accident mourned around the world. Any evidence of narcissism and hostility is removed to bolster the narrative of an innocent made saintly by adversity, who eagerly embraces a roster of unpopular causes. (A key scene in Act II shows Diana breaking royal protocol to embrace a group of AIDS patients, which really happened.) As the usher at the performance I attended said, "Enjoy the show. It's not a history lesson." I'll say it isn't.

Instead, the musical finds many occasions for a vulgarity all its own. It starts on a not-unpromising note with "Underestimated," which features a thoughtful lyric and a melody that sounds like Andrew Lloyd Webber on a good day. But the bombastic score -- music by David Bryan, lyrics by Bryan and DiPietro -- sounds off-key when sung by stuffy aristocrats and Kelly Devine's choreography features Buckingham Palace staff thrusting their pelvises like Gypsy's Miss Mazeppa. Too often, the lyrics are starved for inspiration. Diana, bored at a cello concert, complains, "The Russian plays on and on/Like an endless telethon/How I wish that he were Elton John." Holding their firstborn, Charles sings, "Darling, I'm holding our son/Suddenly our lives have begun/I never I was the type to cry/Or sing a sweet lullaby." When the royal marriage goes south, Diana muses, "How come I seemed to be the last to know?/Wasn't I the most beautiful bride?/A glittering jewel right by his side?/Serve me right for marrying a Scorpio." With plodders like that, one is grateful for the second act's wackier passages.

Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that Jeanna de Waal achieves Diana's transformation from starry-eyed teenager to sleek sophisticate wielding her celebrity status as a superpower; she also sings gorgeously, no small achievement considering the amount of belting required. Erin Davie is equally good as calculating, conflicted, heartsick Camilla. Roe Hartrampf makes a handsome Charles, but this wooden role is impossible to animate. Judy Kaye, that pro of pros, is a staunch, starchy Queen Elizabeth, making the most of the score's best number, "An Officer's Wife," and a mad camp as Barbara Cartland, swathed in yards in Pepto-Bismol pink marabou and dispensing jaded romance advice.

David Zinn's set design surrounds the action with what looks like the gates of Buckingham Palace plus an upstage drop representing that royal residence. He also fills the stage with beds, divans, china cabinets, and other furnishing, including a series of movable towers. It's a lot of stuff and sometimes the Longacre stage feels crowded, but it is lit with stunning precision and the judicious use of saturated color by Natasha Katz. If many of William Ivey Long's costumes are unflattering, well, the 1980s produced some lamentable styles; in any case, many numbers take advantage of his knack for quick-change effects. (This is, I believe, the final project of the late hair designer Paul Huntley, whose work, as per usual, is impeccable.) The show's loudness can, I think, be attributed to John Clancy's orchestrations, but Gareth Owen's sound design is admirably clear throughout.

The production is, admittedly, staged with a certain verve by Christopher Ashley, who seems happiest when the action gets down and dirty. And it's no wonder; this is sob-sister stuff, alternately pious and gossipy, served up in the best Fleet Street manner. Roaming through the action is a pack of jackal reporters eager to exploit Diana for headlines, singing, "Was there ever a greater tabloid tale?" Probably not -- and, all these years later, the exploitation mill grinds on. --David Barbour

(29 November 2021)

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