PRINCESS Diana is one of the most beloved women of the past century so it’s not surprising that her life is made into movies, TV show or a stage musical. Right now, we have “The Crown” TV series, a musical coming on Broadway and a new film starring Kirsten Stewart.
The new American-made musical, simply titled “Diana” debuted at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California, and will open in Broadway this November yet, but a filmed version of the stage play is already being shown on Netflix.
Tony winners Joe DiPietro and former Bon Jovi member David Bryan collaborated on the music, book and lyrics and they took a lot of liberties in telling her story on stage. For one, they make Barbara Cartland, the romance novelist who’s related to Diana, a part of the show, and both Barbara and Queen Elizabeth are played by the same actress, Tony winner Judy Kaye, who’s very good but a bit stout as the queen.
The show opens with Diana Spencer (Jeanna de Waal) standing solo on stage and singing the first song, “Underestimated”, which describes her as 19 and naive, a helper in a kindergarten school, when she first meets Camille Parker Bowles (Erin Davie), who is established as being instrumental for her to meet Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf).
She barely knows the prince but even her sister Sarah (Holy Ann Butler) says he is a good catch as every girl dreams of marrying a prince. So they have a fairy tale wedding witnessed on TV by the whole world, but Diana soon finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage and by the rigid lifestyle of being a part of the royal family with its many rules.
She doesn’t know how to be a princess, but she becomes true to herself, making herself accessible to common people and helping those who are in need. She innocently defies all expectations and the media just cannot have enough of her, making her immensely popular.
Charles envies her being a global phenomenon and decries that she’s actually “jologs”. He takes her to the concert of a classical cellist, but she longs for the music of Elton John and Duran Duran, making him complain to Camilla that she has the “musical taste of a teenage girl”, with Camilla reminding him that she IS indeed a teenage girl.
But Diana later proves that she’s not really that docile and easy to tame. When she confirms the real score about Charles and Camilla’s relationship, she dumps the frumpy dresses the Queen gives to her and turns to Dior and sexier haute couture.
To rebel against what Charles calls her lack of protocol, she dances in a ballet show and gets herself involved in various humanitarian charities, including visiting AIDS patients and having her photos taken with them to fight off the stigma of being HIV positive.
Charles just cannot compete with her star status and even his queen mom tells him: “She is portraying herself as a woman cruelly betrayed by an unaffectionate husband and half of the women in England can relate to that scenario.”
But the queen has herself to blame because earlier, she tells hers son: “Love evolves and bends/ and men take other friends.” Charles obviously interpreted this as her permission to marry Diana and also continue his illicit relationship with Camilla.
For sure, theatre critics would make fun of this very commercial production,but we honestly enjoyed it. They’ll say it turned Diana’s dramatic life into light entertainment with liberal touches of comedy, but remember, the whole production is meant to be theatrical. We particularly like the way it portrays how annoying the paparazzi can be in the “Snap, Click” number.
The whole show clocks in at only about an hour and 45 minutes and it’s so breezily paced, pummeling viewers with rapid scene and costume changes, with one sensational, tabloid-grabbing headline after next.
Most of the details in Diana’s life are there, including perfunctory biographical asides referring to her suicide try and bouts with bulimia. We all know how the story of Diana ends in tragedy and when we finally hear about it in the final scene, they don’t milk it into tears to make it mawkishly sentimental.
The attempt at having a lively sense of humor is seen in the opening of Act II with Barbara Cartland introducing Diana’s lover, her sons’ riding instructor, James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan), who appears onstage shirtless while on horseback and they make all sorts of raunchy jokes about horses and riding lessons that shamelessly pander, but which Barbara quickly says she only made up.
The whole production is very Broadway, very American, even the songs and the score smack of very commercial theatre. The ensemble cast is very efficient. Jeanna de Waal is about 10 pounds heavier than the real Diana but she has lovely vocal pipes and she properly registers her character’s emotional state from being a gullible girl to a wife scorned desiring for revenge.
The actor who plays Charles is bland but much better looking than his real life counterpart. It is important to note that he is really the villain in Diana’s story as he goes on having an affair with Camilla even if he knew she is very much married and their friends condone their illicit relationship.
Erin Davie does Camilla with finesse, superb with her singing and so calculating with the way she wraps Charles around her adulterous arms.
One of the show’s highlights is Diana’s confrontation with her in a party called “The Main Event” which is referred to in the lyrics as the “Thrilla in Manila with Diana and Camilla”. All in all, don’t be too exacting and you’d find it quite amusing.