Princess Diana died when I was only 2 years old. I don’t remember anything about it. The only reference I have is what I’ve been told and seen on TV with an agenda. She seems to be deified, gone-too-soon, and beloved. But was that the real her? Diana, the new musical making its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse attempts to answer that question. From the same creative team that brought you the Tony-winning musical Memphis, we are given a look at the lives of Diana, Charles, Elizabeth, and Camilla.
Now, keeping in mind that this is a world premiere, this is such a wonderful start. I can’t quite tell you what kind of music I was expecting from this musical, so I don’t know why was I was so shocked to find out it was rock. Starting with the music, as we are already on this topic, I must say that some of these songs are absolutely wonderful, specifically Snap, Click, Princess Di Floating, Diana (the Rage), and Pretty, Pretty Girl from Act 1, and The Words Came Pouring Out, The Dress, and If from Act 2. For most musicals, music is OBVIOUSLY important to the show, but for most of Act 1, I was left wanting something more, something deeper from the music. But when Act 2 started, I was given exactly what I was craving, thank God.
The book of this show is what I think needs the most work. For the most part, Act 1 needs a serious overhaul. It seemed very superficial like we were just given something that was only slightly better than one of those Lifetime movies: all speculation and no concrete facts about the personal lives. It isn’t until the end of the first act that we actually see some real emotion from the character of Diana. We see the pain that she feels, that she has been putting on a front for so long, trying her hardest to be the wife she has to be but also the woman she wants to be. When Harry is born, we are first given a glimpse into the pain she feels, the self-harm she has done, and the pressure she is under. From the beginning, we see the harassment she has had from the media, being followed by paparazzi and her life becoming the subject of gossip. But now we see the perfect ideals and standards that they put on her (and all women, if we are honest) about not losing enough weight after giving birth and then more judgment when she quickly loses the weight, causing eating disorders.
This is the kind of meaty story I craved. Why was it only given at the end of the first act? The whole beginning was too much fluff, a totally unconvincing love story between Diana and Charles. But was that the point? I mean, did Charles and Diana even love each other or was it just their duty to their country? Were the crown and all in charge telling him it was time to get married and she just happened to be the girl he was seeing at the time so she was it? That’s what this show is trying to tell you. Do we know this for certain? I’m not sure. But whatever it was, the first act just didn’t work until the end.
Act 2 is a completely different story. Almost as if it was written first and they worked backward. We see Diana, now totally putting on a show. While still married to Charles, the two of them are basically living separate lives, only together for the press. Charles is spending all of his private time with Camilla, as he has been the entire time, and Diana has started spending time with James Hewitt. It seems as though they have both made peace with this. It isn’t until a Diana-Camilla showdown at Camilla’s sister’s birthday party, that things really come to a head. There has been too much fighting, but Diana doesn’t want William and Harry to go through what she went through when her parents separated. But this, we are shown, is the true catalyst for the divorce. Well, that along with the fact that Diana went to Andrew Morton aired all the Windsors’ dirty laundry. Then Charles goes to the press to address his infidelity and Diana wears the lovingly-titled “Fuck You Dress”. A truly wonderful song that has the audience laughing and on her side. If the media is going to be harsh to her in the morning, she may as well look great in her latest photos.
Elizabeth grants the divorce, Diana loses everything but gains her independence. In the 11 o’clock number we see Diana dream about everything she can do now that she is free. She dreams of helping people and going to America once her boys are older. We see her dream of realities she’ll never experience. The show ends rather abruptly in her death, something that will definitely need to be fleshed out more if the show moves on.
The pacing of the show in the first act is reminiscent of Come From Away, which makes sense as the two share a director. The first act moves rather quickly, leaving next to no room for applause, not that the material garners any. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. Act 2, however, leaves breathing room in the transition from song to the next scene, in which applause is welcome and deserving. Christopher Ashley definitely knows what he is doing, he has a Tony Award for God’s sake. He directs this show so beautifully, giving his actors exactly what they need. He has definitely become a favorite director of mine in the past few years.
The costumes, my God, the costumes. William Ivey Long did it again. He recreated some of these looks from the ’90s, namely Diana’s wedding dress and “revenge dress”. There are some signature quick changes, at the end of Act 1 Diana is in a sparkling red dress that gets ripped away into a dazzling white gown. His work is tremendous, but we already knew this.
Jeanna de Waal as Diana is a true dream to see. She takes us from an innocent, timid, 19-year old assistant kindergarten teacher to a fully grown, bold, and hurt woman. Her voice is one of an angel, and she has such heart.
Roe Hartrampf as Charles makes the audience so conflicted. We are shown him to be a man who doesn’t quite stand up for himself but rather lets the women in his life influence his decisions. While he is a flawed character, Roe has such an understanding of this Charles, playing him perfectly
Erin Davie as Camilla is another conflicting character. Obviously, we want Diana to triumph, but does Camilla not deserve happiness as well. While terribly privileged, she and Charles are drawn as star-crossed lovers. Camilla wants to be happy just as much as Charles and Diana. Still, we see her as a villain, but Davie gives her as much heart as she gives bite.
Judy Kay as Queen Elizabeth is a gem. That’s it, she’s just a gem. Getting to see a true Broadway queen as THE queen was something else.
So, I suppose, in conclusion, I truly enjoyed Diana. As a world premier, this was wonderful. Some kinks definitely need to be worked out but there is so much good here. I truly cannot wait to see what this show becomes and I look forward to seeing it again one day on a bigger stage. Is Broadway in the future? I think yes, and I cannot wait.