Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Diana: The Musical


I have long thought that any subject could be turned into a musical. Diana: The Musical sorely tests that idea. Songs that veer from the merely comical to the downright gaudy, with some simply ghastly moments and dumbfounding performances that will elicit either shock or outright laughter, Diana: The Musical sets musicals back at least ten years.

Diana covers the life of the late Princess of Wales (Jeanna de Waal) from her romance with His Royal Highness Charles, Prince of Wales (Roe Hartrampf) through their tempestuous marriage and ultimate divorce. Diana wants more than anything for Charles to love her, not his longtime mistress Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie), but that is a struggle for all concerned.

Watching and commenting (and singing) on all this is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and romance novelist/Diana's step-grandmother Dame Barbara Cartland (Judy Kaye in a dual role). As Charles has a lover, eventually Diana has one too, in the form of very hunky Major James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan). However, all fairy tales, even ones as disastrous as that of the Waleses, must come to an end, though for the Princess, one that ends in terrible tragedy.

Diana, like everything in the world, was impacted by COVID-19. Set to debut on Broadway, the show had to be delayed, and even the filmed version shows the impact the pandemic caused (photos of the masked crew attending the naturally unmasked cast end the presentation). Had it premiered on the Great White Way, Diana would have either closed in days or run for years for the same reason: near total ineptness.

Audiences either would have walked out in shock and anger, or sat in near stunned disbelief at it's "so bad it's good" manner. I don't think anything has come close to showcasing the woefully, wildly misguided efforts of a cast and crew since Springtime for Hitler.

In many ways, Diana plays like parody, almost trying to outdo Springtime for Hitler in tackiness and terribleness. The music and lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (book by DiPietro) soon start stumbling over themselves attempting to ram as many rhymes into them as possible, sometimes with shockingly bad results. It becomes almost a running game to find which song has the worst lyrics, especially since Diana is hellbent on forcing rhymes at every opportunity.

I got tired trying to chronicle every bad rhyme in Diana, but the show loses no time trying to make every song almost comically bad even without rhymes. "Nineteen and naïve, shy and insecure, thinking princes never lie, believing love is pure" Diana sings about herself in the show's opening number Underestimated. My main question is "why is Diana singing those words about herself"? I could see others singing that about her, but it seems odd that she would express herself to be that way.

This is How Your People Dance, chronicling the Prince and Lady Diana Spencer's date, is one for the record books. "And then there's Charles, who's happy when/He hears music by dead white men/Perhaps his girl can turn him into a rocker", Lady Diana sings before everyone starts rocking out. This comes after Diana expresses a desire "to sock her" when thinking of Camilla Parker Bowles. 

Again and again Diana's lyrics come at you in an almost unhinged manner. In She Moves in the Most Modern Ways, which in part looks at her impromptu Royal Ballet dance, we're treated to such lines as "Every move was on point, she electrified the joint". I think though in terms of garish, gonzo musical numbers the most outlandish is Here Comes James Hewitt.

As Barbara Cartland describes the dream man, we see the muscular shirtless Hewitt rise from the stage on a mechanical bull belting out in almost rock-star glee "JAMES HEWITT!". If you're not howling with laughter at this, you then would be staring in total stunned silence at the spectacle of it all (or at the least, admiring Gareth Keegan's physique and bravery at this spectacle). 

"Ladies if your life has gone off course/You don't need no messy divorce/All you need is a man on a horse!" he rocks out to the swooning ladies keeping him company. "I can take you for a ride/All your troubles cast aside/You'll dismount satisfied", he goes on, and by now you have a respect for Keegan for getting through all this without breaking out in laughter himself.

Or at least for his physique.

Diana is flooded with songs: 25 without reprises, as if it was determined to be a wall of sound. With so many songs forcing many rhymes, you can't hold on to any great musical moments. The songs are not allowed to breathe, mellow in the mind. Instead, they are rammed through the nearly two-hour show.

Even here, the songs don't make sense to what we are seeing. Here Comes James Hewitt has the Major as some sleazy gigolo, but the show then shifts to present him as a lovelorn soldier. In Pretty, Pretty Girl the Princess sings "This pretty, pretty girl/was raised to strike a pose/perhaps she should fight/the only way she knows", but Diana makes the case that she was actually raised the be demure, not to "strike a pose". 

The only songs I think were actually good were two slower numbers: I Miss You Most on Sundays and An Officer's Wife sung by Camilla and Queen Elizabeth II respectively. They allowed for character development versus merely chronicling the situations that most viewers would already know. An Officer's Wife might have worked better if director Christopher Ashley had allowed for greater movement as Her Majesty remembers her brief time of freedom in Malta but there was such a stiffness in the presentation that it took away from a potentially good moment.

I Miss You Most on Sundays and Diana in general surprisingly made Camilla a sympathetic character. It almost makes one long for a Charles & Camilla musical, and it curiously diminishes the Princess of Wales. It comes close to being a musical version of the television movie Whatever Love Means

As a side note, we do have a song that uses that famous misquote, Whatever Love Means Anyway. What the Prince of Wales actually said was "whatever in love means", but by now the misquote is so ingrained that it isn't worth arguing about. 

De Waal looks like the late Princess of Wales, and like the rest of the cast does her best, but she has little to work with. That transformation from "Shy Di" to Confident Woman isn't there. Hartrampf does better as Charles: not bothering to sound like His Royal Highness and actually making him sympathetic even as he rages over Diana behaving like a showgirl. Davie's Camilla makes me like her down to where she and Diana confront each other in The Main Event, I was on Team Camilla.

Kaye did better as the outrageous Dame Barbara Cartland than as the stiff Queen Elizabeth II, as she has a role in the former and nothing in the latter. Keegan suffers from how his character is made out to be: sometimes cad, sometimes caring. 

Sometimes Diana can be too much. A case in point: the Snap, Click number, where a group of extremely enthusiastic paparazzi follow the then-Lady Diana in an admittedly exuberant dance number. Again, while Snap, Click has some ghastly lyrics, the choreography is big. 

Ultimately, the best way to describe Diana: The Musical is if Bialystock & Bloom decided to mount another Broadway show after finding something more astonishing that Adolf & Eva's gay romp. If one wanted truth in advertising, it should have been titled not Diana: The Musical but rather Springtime for Spencer


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