La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Diana’ is witty, provocative, but rushes past its subject
If you’re feeling protective of the British royal family, prepare to clutch your pearls. (If you’re a member of the British royal family, have someone clutch them for you.)
The world-premiere La Jolla Playhouse musical “Diana,” a high-gloss but lo-cal paean to a princess, serves up a fantasy sequence of gyrating beefcake; scenes of adulterous royals cavorting in dual onstage beds; and — pretty deliciously — an instance where the name “Camilla” is rhymed with “Godzilla.”
It also has the Queen of England, on one memorably cheeky number, almost dropping serial F-bombs — and this time we’re not talking “Falklands.”
And all this, to my mind, is well and good: What the world doesn’t need to see is some airbrushed stage portrait of a saintly Princess Di and stately House of Windsor. (For one thing, canonization is tough to choreograph.)
But what a musical about the late Princess of Wales does need to try and do is invest us deeply in its version of the show’s complex, troubled subject and her journey, and maybe even show her in a fresh light — admittedly a tall order for someone whose every last blow-dried hair was the subject of media infatuation and saturation.
“Diana,” though, can feel in such a rush to work through key events of the princess’ life — from her first consequential meeting with Prince Charles as a teenager through the couple’s divorce some 16 years later (amid his affairs with Camilla Parker Bowles) — that it has trouble pausing to help us get inside her head a little.
It’s worth noting, given the show’s sometimes breathless pace, that one of its most compelling songs offers advice maybe the creators should heed: “Simply Breathe.” Sung with an arresting depth of feeling by the musical’s star, Jeanna de Waal, the number brings home Diana’s sense of suffocation over her failing marriage and the coldness of the royal family, and offers a welcome glimpse into her inner life.
There’s plenty else to like about “Diana”: Writer-lyricist Joe DiPietro gets comic mileage out of such inspired touches as dropping the romance novelist Barbara Cartland (a real-life relative of Diana’s) into the story for some pulpy fun, and the matchless Broadway icon Judy Kaye manages the neat trick of playing both that flamboyant figure and the stuffy but not unsympathetic Queen Elizabeth .
She and de Waal are joined in the strong cast by Roe Hartrampf, who brings soulful vocals and an elegant touch to the perpetually flummoxed Prince Charles; and Erin Davie, who’s a slyly upbeat charmer as Diana’s quietly scheming rival, Camilla.
The show handles Diana’s mental-health struggles and devotion to charity work (including her groundbreaking forays into AIDS wards) with humanity and heart for the most part, and touches with discretion and welcome good taste on her tragic 1997 passing in a Paris car accident.
DiPietro’s longtime creative partner, the composer David Bryan (keyboardist for the rock band Bon Jovi), brings to the piece a satisfying variety of power ballads, ‘80s-inflected pop and — when it comes to the castle elite — savvy accents of the classical and martial.
Those two, who both won Tony Awards for the Playhouse-launched “Memphis,” team here again with that musical’s director, Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley. The trio’s talents spark in the jagged, caustic ferocity of “Snap, Click,” a backhanded ode to the packs of paparazzi that hound Diana; the number’s antic energy is heightened by Kelly Devine’s propulsive choreography.
Ashley likes to start shows big — witness “Welcome to the Rock,” the rousing opener to the Playhouse-bred “Come From Away,” a show that won him a Tony for direction in 2017. Here, it’s “Once Upon a Time,” an ensemble riff on dashed fairy-tale dreams that showcases the crisp playing of music director, arranger and conductor-keyboardist Ian Eisendrath’s nine-piece orchestra.
The biggst laughs arrive in the saucy “Here Comes James Hewitt,” a Cartland-inspired reverie featuring Diana’s shirtless, hunky new “friend,” an Army officer; and “The Dress,” a doo-wop-derived ode to Diana’s slinky “f--- you” outfit that has the queen nearly stammering out the NC-17 refrain.
Speaking of dresses: William Ivey Long’s costumes for the famously fashion-forward Diana are spectacular and lovingly re-envisioned from the originals.
And while setting the ultimate faceoff between Diana and Camilla as a boxing match feels a little too easy, the feud is envisioned with wit and style on “The Show” thanks in part to the work of set designer David Zinn, plus Natasha Katz’s lighting and Gareth Owen’s sound.
Above all, de Waal pours her heart and soul into the role, even when the piece plays on Diana’s surfaces. She earns the tiara she wears at curtain call. But “Diana,” for all its full-throttle commitment to its elusive subject, could still use a crowning touch or two.
• IF YOU GO: “Diana” plays through April 14, 2019 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, on the UC San Diego campus, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. Tickets: $91-$136. (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org
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