Diana: A new musical: “Swift scenes snap and click.”
Editor: This week marks Jeff Smith’s last as the Reader’s theater critic. Smith is the longest-standing writer at the paper, having started in 1980. Before joining us, he got his Ph.D. in literature and critical theory from UC Irvine where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Shakespeare. We want to thank him for the dedication and steadiness he brought to our pages.
An almost wordless scene in Diana: A New Musical tells the story in miniature. Diana and Prince Charles have been married a short while. The former assistant kindergarten teacher already feels invisible walls closing around her, walls pushed by tradition and the paparazzi, each with boundary issues. Since she’s now Princess of Wales, Charles decides its time she met her subjects. They go by train.
As they enter the station, spectators press together behind a railing. Charles moves briskly down the aisle, nodding regally. Diana stops at the first person in line, a black woman. They shake hands and start talking. Diana’s lips stop moving. She tilts her head forward to hear better. She asks another question. Charles reaches the end and she’s still talking to the first woman. His stone face cracks, as if to say, “she’s NOCD” (“not our class, dear”). It’s not about them! Diana steps to the next person, tilts her head and listens. Huffy Charles finally intervenes.
With silent eloquence, the famous clash between Windsor royalty and Diana’s urge to break from it appears for all to see. The rest of the musical’s two-and-a-half hours are loud, often bombastic, and devoid of nuance.
What might one expect from a musical about the “English Rose,” as beloved as Evita and as vilified? She was far from perfect (the musical mentions issues with depression, bulimia, and attempted suicide, in passing). And except for the famous scene where she takes off her gloves and shakes hands with a man with HIV-AIDS, Diana collapses her glowing deeds — walking through a minefield, for one — into a single sentence. Instead of a halo, or pop-psychobabble, this Diana is two-fisted tough and uncompromising. She’s the opposite of vulnerable, and dares to speak truth full bore. Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics) are from New Jersey. In act two, their Lady Di’s practically a Jersey Girl.
You could call Diana a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for. Teenaged Diana reads only the romance novels of Barbara Cartland (Diana’s step-grandmother), filled with florid prose, chaste heroines and dashing princes, and loves that transcend time. When she’s 19, Diana meets Prince Charles of Wales. After only 13 dates, they tie the knot in 1981 — she’s barely 20, he’s 33 — and divorce in 1996. In effect, she kissed the wrong frog.
Before they meet, Charles has a lover, Camilla Parker Bowles. Protocol won’t allow them to wed: she’s married to the Duke of Cornwall (a divorced woman’s unthinkable), she’s not aristocratic enough, and, his parents insist, he must marry a virgin.
The tale of the royal couple attracts almost as much disinformation as JFK. The rumor mill has alleged for decades that neither wanted the marriage. She supposedly called it the “worst day of my life.” In one scene, the Queen sings to Charles “Whatever Love Means Anyway”: “Love evolves and bends/And men take other friends.” Charles agrees to the marriage not knowing “whatever love means.”
Diana suggests that the media was the real impetus for the royal wedding. An early number, “Snap, Click,” shows why. The paparazzi hound Diana more and more. As flashbulbs assault her, she flickers, like a silent movie. Then the black rear wall pocks her with a glaring strobe effect.
The musical has a similar effect. Swift scenes snap and click. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks approach, like speed reading a tabloid, accompanied by a raft of hard-sell, imitation pop/rock 80s tunes. The book avoids the saintly and the salubrious. According to a note, it doesn’t assign blame. Di, Charles, the Queen, and Camilla receive democratic treatment. This is noble: Charles has thwarted feelings; Camilla too (the paparazzi mobbed her after a scandal). But the even-handed approach flattens the polarizing story into an ensemble piece.
It also verges on cartooning. Broadway stalwart Judy Kaye’s Barbara Cartland, ablaze in florid pinks, is an over-the-top gadfly. Instead of pursed-lips and rectitude, her Elizabeth II’s a broad shouldered toughie given to infelicitous expressions. These and other cartoonings suggest self-parody.
The show has positives: the voices are rockets. Kaye, Roe Hartramph (an icy Charles, intelligent but socially inept), Erin Davie (Camilla Parker Bowles, more irritant than human), and Jeanna de Waal (Diana, who grows from fragile innocence to rock superstar) have impressive ranges and belt every note above the ledger lines. No slouches in the supporting cast, either.
William Ivey Long’s costumes are as stunning as David Zinn’s set — the drab gate to Buckingham Palace — is mundane. In one scene, Di makes quicker and quicker changes. The finale defies the laws of physics.
In one of the best constructed numbers, Charles wants to give Di some culture. So he has her hear Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. She’d much rather hear Duran Duran or Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. Buoyed by Kelly Devine’s kaleidoscopic choreography, the number gives both the classical and the contemporary. It’s a highlight in a show determined to turn every scene into one.