Review: Nothing but inconvenience for their Highnesses in ‘Diana, the Musical’

As with the car accident that claimed her life, the most appropriate response to “Diana the Musical” is to look away.

Devoid of insight and ricocheting between lackluster vulgarity and vain hero worship, the show, which had its official opening Wednesday at the Longacre Theater, is less uplifting than a scroll through the tabloid archives. The musical La Jolla Playhouse claims to ridicule them for stalking their prey, but in reality associates them with exploitation.

“Whatever the cause, she moves with such skill, she seems to know secrets I’ll never know,” says one of the many howlers in David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s lay-it-on-thick score. The careful staging of director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Kelly Devine – the team responsible for the moving “Come From Away”, also born at the Playhouse – applies a varnish patina. But neither they nor a cast led by Jeanna de Waal as the abused princess add a fresh glow of enlightenment to the events in Diana’s life. Why, oh why, you think, don’t they just let the woman rest in peace?

This Royal Pain of a Production For Some Reason debuted on Netflix before it started on Broadway, so at least I knew what to expect. That is to say: a chorus of paparazzi in trench coats, wearily repeating “Snap click!” and swirling like sinister dervishes; a mundane dramatization of the night Diana danced at the Royal Opera House, footnoted by doggerel comments such as “Every move was on point, she electrified the joint”; accomplished musical theater actress Judy Kaye, playing the role of the Frowning Queen; and also Diana’s flamboyant mother-in-law, love novelist Barbara Cartland, in a bespoke role for Dame Edna.

Speaking of tailoring, even the king’s ransom for William Ivey Long’s dresses doesn’t make much noise. That’s because it was the way the real Diana wore them that made them dazzling.

And then there’s the arrival of Diana’s lover, James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan) at the top of Act 2, in the aptly titled “Here Comes James Hewitt”. Red mane, shirtless and mounted on a supporting horse, he is presented as an equestrian refugee from Chippendales. “James Hewitt did it in a princess’ bed,” sings the choir. Gee, thanks, “Diana.” We needed this.

De Waal is granted the required inventory of powerful ballads, which she churns out as if she were filling out a checklist. Poor Erin Davie takes on the grim task of playing Camilla Parker Bowles, Prince Charles’ true sweetheart, portrayed here as coldly manipulative. (For the retrograde theater, no scene surpasses the basement confrontation between Diana and Camilla, fighting for “their man.”) As Charles, Roe Hartrampf is all imperious as he whines in uniforms of roaring mice and costumes from Savile Row.

The musical poses Britain as a land of fancy chandeliers, postcard palaces and plum accents – what, no beef eaters?!? Imagine a panel of American sports presenters debating the ins and outs of cricket, and you will get a feel for “Diana’s” understanding of her topic. An interlude satirizing the stultifying fatuity of the royal mission is followed by another which complacently celebrates the magnificence of Diana deigning to speak to Welsh sympathizers. And his epiphanic declaration of independence from the royal family is described as his decision to wear better clothes.

If the authors had chosen a thematic path – kitsch, sheer pageantry, dysfunctional family dynamics, monarchical history, the media’s obsession with celebrities – one might begin to search for a deeper meaning. But “Diana” tries all of the above, as if desperately rummaging through Diana’s bulky wardrobe, only to come out looking miserable.

Additional information: Diana, book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Music supervision, Ian Eisendrath; sets, David Zinn; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Gareth Owen. About 2h30. $ 39 to $ 240. At the Longacre Theater, 220 West 48th St., New York. 212-239-6200.

Marks writes for the Washington Post.