Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The crowning moment in Diana, the royal mess of a biographical musical that is somehow now on Broadway, comes late in the second act. Diana (Jeanna de Waal), the Princess of Wails—sorry, Wales—feels humiliated after her Prince Uncharming, Charles (Roe Hartrampf), publicly reveals his long-standing affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Erin Davie). Enter a couture-savvy courtier with sartorial advice. “How about this fuck you dress?” he suggests, more queenily than Elizabeth II herself. “This fuckity-fuckity-fuckity-fuckity fuck you dress?” Huzzah! Soon Diana has sheathed herself in a slinky black number, and the press goes wild. “Fuckity-fuckity-fuckity-fuckity / Fuckity-fuckity-fuckity-fuckity,” chant the paparazzi in doo-wop unison as a platform lifts Diana above them center stage. She’s played the good girl long enough: It’s time to try defying. Fuckity!
This number, titled “The Dress,” encapsulates the combination of bad taste and tasty badness that is Diana, one of the most enjoyable Broadway farragos of the 21st century so far. The real Princess Di died in 1997 at the age of 36, and her story might be the stuff of opera. Instead, book writer Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan—who share blame for the show’s lyrics—have opted for a campy, dishy pop-rock clip job of memorable moments from Diana’s life, rendered in a stream of ploddingly banal rhyming couplets set to tunes that sometimes assume a vaguely 1980s accent. (Don’t think New Wave; think Starship and Sheena Easton.) When the lyrics stray from the generic, it is often for the worse. “Wasn’t I the most beautiful bride? A glittering jewel right by his side,” sings Diana when she begins to wise up. “Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio.” This may have been one of the half-dozen times when a gentleman in back of me at the theater uttered a sassy “Period!” in response to a line onstage.
Directed by Christopher Ashley—in his Escape to Margaritaville mode, not his Come From Away mode—the principal actors mostly keep a straight face, even as the ensemble around them undulates and gesticulates through Kelly Devine’s frenetic synchronized dance moves. De Waal maintains a coy dignity; she underacts and sings smoothly as Diana, and has mastered the princess’s signature chin-down-eyes-up expression. Even so—and I can’t imagine this is what the musical intends—you may end up rooting for Camilla, whom Davie portrays with composure and sly wit. Hartrampf plays the cad handsomely, and Judy Kaye doubles amusingly as the stuffy Queen Elizabeth and the puffy romance novelist Barbara Cartland, who was Diana’s step-grandmother. As the latter, she is tasked with introducing Diana’s lover, the comely riding instructor James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan), who rises onstage shirtless like the poster from Urban Cowboy. “Oh oh oh, you go girl!” sing the ladies of the chorus. “James Hewitt / Did do it / In our princess’s bed,” Cartland informs us.
What exactly is Diana trying to say? The show portrays the paparazzi as swooping vultures, uniformly clad in trench coats like flashers in a park. (“Better than a Guinness / Better than a wank / Snatch a few pics / It’s money in the bank,” they sing.) Yet Diana itself skips over most of its heroine’s very real issues—her eating disorders and suicide attempts are name-checked only briefly—and dwells on the tabloid drama of her Gone with the Windsors romantic entanglements. (“It’s the Thrilla in Manila / But with Diana and Camilla!”) And while it portrays Diana as eager to move beyond the world’s superficial dismissal of her as “a pretty pretty girl in a pretty pretty dress,” it unabashedly elicits applause for costume designer William Ivey Long’s reproductions of her most famous outfits, and gets an early laugh at the expense of Camilla’s appearance. This is shabby stuff, and the laziness of the writing extends to the smallest details; the show has Diana listening to Culture Club, Duran Duran and the Pet Shop Boys in 1980. But the gobsmacking unseriousness that characterizes Diana’s approach to the late princess is also what makes it bearable to watch in a way that a more earnest version would probably never have been. For collectors of flop shows, Diana is a keeper: It goes for broke, and achieves it.
Diana. Longacre Theatre (Broadway). Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Music and lyrics by David Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley. With Jeanna de Waal, Roe Hartrampf, Erin Davie, Judy Kaye. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.