By Carole Di Tosti . . .
Diana The Musical received a number of negative reviews. In this piece I look “through a lens darkly” at Diana with the intention of highlighting aspects of the production that should be noted and thus, avoid the “critics’ mess.” The musical is worthy of more than blindly gleeful excoriations and wrong-headed thinking, albeit critics may assert they have more heft than this humble writer.
Backed by the Shubert Organization and a boatload of other renowned producers, including La Jolla Playhouse, Diana The Musical is the work of the creative team of Joe DiPietro (book & lyrics) and David Bryan (music & lyrics). The team won Tonys for Memphis (2010) and other awards, including DiPietro’s Drama Desk for Best Book for Nice Work If You Can Get It. Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi (keyboardist) is a Grammy winner. And both have teamed up on their next musical Chasing the Song, also workshopped at La Jolla Playhouse.
One key to understanding their perspective about Diana The Musical is at the top of the production. Right before it begins with its bang-up opening number, “Underestimated,” Paparrazi dressed in tan, flared overcoats with matching hats, looking like “spies” appear amidst flashes of light. One Paparrazi steps out and says, “Was there ever a greater tabloid tale?” Then all race off.
From the bright light backdrop emerges Diana, the golden-throated Jeanna de Waal who pulls off the waggish theatricality and endearing Diana persona with great flair and emotional nuance. As she sings “Underestimated,” we are reminded that she, the Diana avatar, upended everyone’s expectations and made waves, changing the nature of the monarchy as perceived by the British tabloids and vulture media, astutely turning their word swords into their own “proper entrails.”
Thus, with this Paparrazi’s “greatest tabloid tale” establishing the “smart-alecky,” flippant tone, approach, and setting up the poignant conclusion, we understand the creators’ vision and the development of Diana The Musical as a “tabloid story.” What follows after this opening is a flashback of the press’ “facts” of her life with the royals.
Importantly, we are thrust into examining ourselves as the consumers, predators, voyeurs that kept and still keep that story “alive,” the facts confused, and lines between, fictionalized gradations of truth, blurred. As the production infers, the tabloids of the time, principally those of the Murdock empire, became the staging ground for the launching of the “princess.” They keenly, exploited this image for its money-making potential with suppositions and crass lust for gossipy sensationalism that the public and above all “journalists” “ate up” and still consume in movies (Spencer) and this production which twits itself.
To view Diana The Musical as a literalist caught up in the arc of the story, clicking off the remembered events one may have consumed from the tabloids, papers, TV series or documentaries, one misses the humor, irony and the sometimes intentionally sophomoric rhymes and cleverly repetitive music. The repetition implies Diana copy was all of the same piece.
Additionally, one will miss the unfolding of the final revelations and themes. First, that tabloids spread misinformation because they can with a believing populace. Second, tabloids act as an equalizer, bringing the great low to sate the sub rosa jealousy of the “little people.” Lastly, tabloids mine humiliation, create torment and demean by erecting idols then smashing the “adored” with their humanity. Murdock’s tabloids propelled the Diana “story” and gossipy dirt like no other, so that even the “regular” press piled on creating a dangerous precedent.
The tabloid portrait of Diana is what the musical delivers, the glorious creation to please the masses and journalists. She was beautiful copy in all her forms as was the monarchy whom they pitted her against as her foe. But the production reveals that tabloids refused to take responsibility for her death.
DiPietro and Bryan, in keeping with the phenomenon they criticize and expose (the public’s obsession with her, the press’ sensationalism which exacerbates it) never connect the Papparazi directly to her death. None of the actors dressed as Paparrazi appear on stage at the conclusion for she doesn’t die. Diana steps from flashing lights into the upstage darkness as the ensemble sings about her “lighting the world.” It is the image, her persona that “lights the world,” as she lives forever immortalized in fictionalizations: movies, plays, TV series, etc.
In Diana, it is the tabloid’s creatures we see as the well-publicized events of her life are hyperbolized for public consumption. Thus, we witness her dating Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf is wonderful as Charles in his development as the beleaguered, sometimes loving, then increasingly unhappy, angry, Diana nemesis) encouraged by Camilla (” Whatever Love Means Anyway”). Erin Davie is the perfect avatar for what we believe Camilla would be to keep Charles allured rather villainously. There are enough jokes concerning her looks and strange sustainability with Charles as she bests Diana in his affections.
Di Pietro and Bryan take us through the Diana chronology, from the marriage (the quick change up of wedding dresses is surprising) the two children, Prince Charles being unable to give up Camilla as Diana must give up the dashing James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan). The crises mount until Diana voids her royal position by becoming a fashion icon who scandalously controls the media (the hysterical “The Dress”) as DiPietro and Bryan make their scathing critical ironies with facetious lyrics and buoyant music. It’s not all rock/pop upbeat cadence; only the humorous waggish songs. Indeed, some of the harmonies are lovely (“If”).
The tabloid personas are exactly as we expect them to be (a shout out to the actors who bring vitality and life to the portrayals in keeping with the tone). And there’s even an over-the-top interjection of Barbara Cartland (Judy Kaye dressed in fluffy pink from top to toe). Cartland introduces us to James Hewitt as the instrument of vengeance in Diana’s life,” Here Comes James Hewitt.” Kaye as Cartland plies her influence on Diana and comments on Charles and Camilla’s affair, and Diana’s affair with Hewitt (“Him & Her (& Him & Her).”
Having Kaye do double duty as Queen Elizabeth and Barbara Cartland, both the head of empires in their own right, is cleverly humorous; Kaye plays it off, enjoying the ironic joke. Cartland’s advice to Diana (a former romance fan) is that her novels are fantasy, romance is dead and in real life, men lie and cheat. The irony that an avatar of romance fiction warns the reigning fairy tale princess that her prince is a cad is priceless.
Finally, the interjection of Andrew Morton (Nathan Lucrezio) who Diana “spills her guts” to (“The Words Came Pouring Out”) is an important addition in the evolution of Diana’s maturing persona as she moves from under the oppression of the monarchy and gains her own revenge. From replicas of the royal’s iconic clothing (William Ivey Long) to the tell-tale hair (Paul Huntley) to the pat twists and turns in the Diana story, all unwind with irony and humor. Interestingly, the ravenous audience and the press are the butt of Di Pietro’a and Bryan’s joke in addition to the royals.
In keeping with the antic, amused and ironic perspective, many of the songs nail it. Kelly Devine’s choreography for the “Snap, Click” sinister twirling of the Paparazzi around Diana with spinning movement as they unspool their “tabloid tale” is effective. “She Moves in the Most Modern Ways, sung by Kaye’s Queen, Davie’s Camilla, Holly Ann Butler as Sarah Spencer (Diana’s sister confidante) Hartrampf’s Charles, Andre Jordan as Colin and Anthony Murphy as Paul Burrell also works. Anthony Murphy who is also hysterical singing “The Dress” with De Waal, Kaye and the ensemble elevates the humor with meaning. The songs codify the press’s indictment of the monarchy as stuffily dead with Diana shaking things up as both a benefit and liability, making great copy.
Of course, the theatricality Diana creates is even better copy. Throughout the production, Jeanna De Waal does not drop a stitch of the persona in the arc of the press’ vision of her. Her irony, sweetness, fury and flippant attitude beautifully captures the creatives’ vision. The song “This Is How Your People Dance” when Diana listens to Bach with Charles and the others, while imagining a rock concert with her favorites, where all but Camilla “shake it up” is riotous.
Finally, the creators emphasize the bare bone facts referenced by the media that, understanding what she was up against in her marriage, suffering without proper allies to rescue her, Diana Spencer carved out her own approach to her position in the royal corporation which had “winked at” Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Growing into her own burgeoning identity, she empowered herself, using the media for great causes (the scene in the AIDS ward is poignantly done) that had not been taken up by anyone until she became involved. Throughout, the press, not unlike Hollywood with Marilyn Monroe, helped create her charismatic persona which to this day is hot copy. And it is that which Diana The Musical makes very clear with ironic twists that at bottom are an indictment of us all.
This is one to see with this caveat: remember that the tastelessness is all on the press and the public who clamored for the avatar Diana and her foe royals. Despite that underlying “ugly” truth, Diana The Musical expresses that message with humor, silliness, waggish irony and wit. Kudos to the creatives: David Zinn (scenic design) Natasha Katz (lighting design) Gareth Owen (sound design) the musical team and Ian Eisendrath (music arrangement and supervision).
Diana the Musical, Longacre Theatre (220 West 48 Street) NYC – run time 2 hrs, 15 min (one Intermission)
For tickets and times visit the website: https://thedianamusical.com/
Photos: Matthew Murphy
This review first appeared on NYC Skyline (Carole Di Tosti) on Nov. 27,2021