Diana: The Musical review: A chintzy jewel in Netflix's royal content crown
Musicals based on real-life figures are all the rage (see: Cher, Tina Turner, etc.), but it's difficult to imagine a musical more simpering and thoughtlessly assembled than Diana: The Musical.
Filmed in September 2020 without an audience, the production makes the somewhat head-scratching choice of debuting on Netflix before it officially opens on Broadway on Nov. 17. It's clear Netflix snatched it up on the heels of its critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning Diana-focused season of The Crown, but don't expect it to receive any similar accolades.
It's unclear just who the target audience is for this: Hate watchers? People who collect plates bearing the faces of the royal family? I myself have a Meghan and Harry tea towel and woke up at 4 a.m. to watch William and Kate's wedding, so I should've been the prime demo here?
The musical follows Diana Spencer (Jeanna de Waal) from her first meeting with Charles (Roe Hartrampf) through her divorce and tragic death. We get her greatest hits (or blows as it were), from her affair with James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan) to her radically important work visiting AIDS patients, which is sadly reduced to a pale imitation of the Rent Life Support meetings. It hops from one salacious, tabloid-grabbing headline to the next, pummeling the audience through a fashion show of Princess Di's greatest looks (beautifully recreated by William Ivey Long) while offering no insight whatsoever into her emotional state.
While musicals are meant to use song to offer their characters emotional depth and advance the plot, Diana's songs simply exist.
The score itself, composed by David Bryan, is a cacophony of numbers that all sound the same — and yet, I could not hum a single tune from the unmemorable mish-mosh that sounds as if it were brought to life by a single drum-kit and a computer. To make matters worse, the lyrics are astonishingly puerile. Choice selections include: "There's Charles who is happy when he's hearing music by dead white men," a riff on Diana being "a pretty pretty girl in a pretty pretty dress" and the so bad all one can do is laugh, "It's the thriller from Manila with Diana and Camilla."
If that's not bad enough, we get an 11 o'clock number about a "F--- you" dress, a sonic ode to the infamous 1985 Victor Edelstein gown Diana wore to the White House where she danced with John Travolta. It's mind-boggling that this show is not a parody that exists purely in the world of a television show, say as a one-off punchline on Glee.
The casting also leaves something to be desired. Jeanna de Waal has a lovely singing voice, but she gives us a knowing, smirky Diana who exists on a purely surface level. De Waal showcases Diana's desire for revenge and love, but we never get a true sense of the princess' emotional distress or early fairy-tale naivety.
Broadway legend Judy Kaye is also miscast as the duty-bound Queen Elizabeth II, styled to resemble Harry Potter's Professor Umbridge more strongly than she does the Queen (perhaps it's a ploy to get viewers excited for Imelda Staunton's season of The Crown?). Erin Davie deserves credit for giving the most measured and believable performance as Camilla Parker Bowles, but her role as the long-suffering other woman is fairly thankless.
There's also a strange emphasis on Barbara Cartland's role in Diana's life, but the use of her as a narrator and framing device underlines how much the musical can't decide what it wants to be. Are they mocking Cartland's (extremely successful and prolific) career as a romance writer or merely giving us context for Diana's own foolhardy innocence? It veers into caricature and self-parody when Cartland introduces us all to Diana's hunky partner-in-philandering James Hewitt — shirtless and on horseback making terrible jokes about riding lessons. Rhyming tabloid headlines are less ignominious than this sequence.
That's just the show itself, but the filming, as directed by Christopher Ashley does it no favors either, often obscuring the sets (which are sparse to begin with) and ensemble with strange angles, ill-timed cutaways, and poor framing. There's no sense whether the choreography could be a selling point for the proceedings since we can't catch more than a glimpse of it at any given moment. While productions such as Hamilton and What the Constitution Means to Me have showcased the possibilities of filming stage shows and enhancing their existence in this liminal space between theater and cinema, Diana is the poster child of its pitfalls.
If you want royal intrigue and insight, do yourself a favor and revisit Harry and Meghan's Oprah interview because Diana: The Musical is rather like the royal family itself these days, expensive and pointless. D