Producers: Frank Marshall and Beth Williams Director: Christopher Ashley Screenplay: Joe DiPietro Cast: Jeanna de Waal, Roe Hartrampf, Erin Davie, Judy Kaye, Gareth Keegan, Bruce Dow and Holly Ann Butler Distributor: Netflix
If Ken Mandelbaum ever decides to do a second edition of his book about Broadway musical flops, “Never Since Carrie,” he’ll have to reserve ample space to discuss this woefully inept attempt to turn the unhappy marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer into a “Evita”-like smash. In its effort to paint its subject as a woman misused by her royal in-laws and abused by a hectoring press, “Diana: The Musical” is shallow, silly and profoundly simplistic—and not even goofy enough to be a camp classic.
Actually, “Diana” hasn’t opened on the Great White Way yet; it’s now scheduled to premiere there next month. But you can witness the catastrophe ahead of time, as it were, on Netflix, because the show was in previews when COVID-19 shut down New York’s theatrical scene, and the producers decided to hedge their bets by filming the almost-ready-for-prime-time production and saving at least some of their investment by selling the result to the streaming service, which was already basking in the success of “The Crown.”
If what we see here were an out-of-town try-out, they’d probably shut the mess down immediately and avoid New York altogether. But one way or another, the weird situation affords a large public the chance to experience what only a few theatre buffs usually do—an actual Broadway disaster. It’s a pretty grisly affair.
The misguided book by Joe DiPietro (who also collaborated on the lyrics with composer David Bryan) starts with Diana (Jeanna de Waal) singing about being “underestimated” and then proceeds to recount, in brief, snarky scenes, the arrangement of her marriage to Charles (Roe Hartrampf) even as he continues his affair with the married Camilla Parker-Bowles (Erie Davie). All occurs under the watchful eye of Queen Elizabeth (Judy Kaye), who wants him to settle down with a proper wife. (Kaye also doubles as Barbara Cartland, the novelist who’s also Diana’s step-grandmother and serves as an occasional catty commentator.)
Act I moves speedily—William and Harry have both been born by the forty-five-minute mark, by which time the royal marriage is already in distress. Its unravelling continues until what’s obviously the intended obviously planned but non-existent intermission, followed by a number that in sheer dreadfulness dooms Act II from the very start—one that introduces bare-chested James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan), the riding instructor who becomes Diana’s lover.
It can’t really be said that things go downward from there, since the nadir has already been reached, but they certainly don’t improve any—a number set at a posh party where Diana and Camilla face off is just as bad, with lines like “A thrilla in Manila, but with Diana and Camilla” sung repeatedly by the chorus—just one of the instances when the lyrics, normally just puerile, descend to horrendously awful. Another sequence, in which Diana meets with AIDS patients is meant to be an uplifting example of her empathy, but comes off as cloyingly banal.
The music offers no solace. Bryan’s contribution consists of the tiresomely pulsating, pop-influenced stream of declamatory stuff that lacks even a moment of melodic inspiration so familiar in today’s musicals. Even the big numbers designed to be crowd-pleasers fall flat. And while Ian Eisendrath’s conducting has energy, Kelly Devine’s choreography—at least what one can see of it through the jagged visuals fashioned by director Christopher Ashley, cinematographer Declan Quinn and editors Gary Levy and Kate Sanford—is at best ordinary, and at times positively grotesque. On the positive side, though David Zinn’s sets are curiously spare, costume designer William-Ivey Long provides a virtual fashion show of the people princess’ parade of frocks. You’ll come out humming the dresses, not the backdrops.
One feels sorry for the cast as they try desperately to inject some life into this material. De Waal sings decently enough, but her performance is surprisingly pallid, the more dramatic moments completely unmoving. Kaye is a belter, and does her double duty with a professionalism that at least impresses for its tenacity in the face of the awful dialogue that she spouts as Cartland. Hartrampf and Keegan are more notable for striking poses than providing any depth of character, though again it’s the book one must fault; only Davie really comes off well, providing sheer Broadway brassiness as snobby Camilla.
“Diana” pretty much rushes through her post-divorce life, mostly presenting it in choral ensembles that point out what she’s doing in charitable work before abruptly announcing her death in Paris. The fatal car accident isn’t dramatized, which is a blessing in terms of simple propriety, but also because it would have been redundant to portray such an event in a show that has long since crashed and burned. Another lyric describes Diana’s story as “a fairy tale born in hell.” Some might call that an apt summation of this musical, too.