Review: Instant Camp Classic Diana: the Musical on Netflix Is a Delicious, Trashy Ride
If you have an appreciation for theatrical turkeys, have we got a show for you.
There are bad musicals that are just bad musicals (privyet, Doctor Zhivago), and then there are bad musicals that are so bad they transcend their awfulness and land in a different plane entirely.
Say 'allo with an accent that goes in and out to Diana: The Musical, one of the most delightful turkeys I've ever seen, and I've seen some doozies. In previews on Broadway when theaters shut down, Joe DiPietro and David Bryan's singing, dancing Wikipedia entry about Diana, Princess of Wales, was filmed during the pandemic and is now available on Netflix before the show resumes performances on November 2. I don't know if they'll be able to convert any ticket buyers — internet buzz has been lethal since its October 1 release — but man, watching this ridiculous and tacky bit of shlock was a great way to spend a Friday night. And a Sunday afternoon. Yes, we watched it twice. It gets better each time.
Diana: The Musical (formerly subtitled "A True Musical Story") is a classic in the making, albeit not the kind they were hoping for. It's the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, a camp-fest where people dress up in silly wigs, get drunk, and yell out their favorite lines a minute before they happen. The first night we watched, I woke my pregnant wife up several times after we went to bed to tell her "It's a thrilla in Manilla but with Diana and Camilla." Yes, that's an actual lyric. "I want to be lobotomized," is how she would reply. It's just that kind of show.
Written in fast-forward (the book is by DiPietro, the music is by Bryan, and they share lyric duties), Diana zooms through the courtship of the future People's Princess (Jeanna de Waal) and Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf), despite the consternation of his mother, the Queen (two-time Tony winner Judy Kaye), and his longstanding infatuation with BFF Camilla (Erin Davie). They have kids, Diana becomes a populist hero, she wears a lot of fancy clothes (William Ivey Long's costumes are the best part), there are affairs and new lovers, she visits AIDS patients, they divorce, she dies. The musical has roughly the same amount of nuance as this plot synopsis.
Diana is one of those shows where I'd love to know what everyone involved was thinking, because it doesn't seem like anyone is on the same page except the designers, whose work, even on screen, is wonderful. David Zinn contributes an icy, austere set that radiates wealth, especially as lit by Natasha Katz. The production reportedly disavowed costumer William Ivey Long at the cast's insistence over allegations of sexual impropriety that came to light in 2018, but his work is still the show's highlight; you'll find yourself rewinding the parade of jaw-dropping, split-second outfit changes at the end of the first act just to see if you can spot how it's done.
I'll give Bon Jovi keyboardist Bryan this: he knows how to write a catchy hook. Beyond that, though, the generic rock melodies of the score have the dubious distinction of sounding like other, better songs; see if you can hear the shades of Rent, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and his and DiPietro's better musical, The Toxic Avenger. DiPietro, meanwhile, seems to be in on a joke that he didn't bother to tell anyone else. Only he knows that this is a wink-wink, nudge-nudge parody — with lyrics like "Harry, my ginger-haired son/you'll always be second-to-none" and off-kilter slant rhymes like "intellect" and "discotheque," it has to be, right? If the entire show were performed that way, if it had an intentional sense of humor — like the scene where shirtless Diana paramour James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan) rises from below the stage on horseback singing his own name — it would be so much better.
Alas, director Christopher Ashley (who filmed the show as beautifully as he did Come From Away) has staged the piece with the sincerity of Lear, except with body rolls (the choreography is by his frequent collaborator, Kelly Devine), and the actors play it so straight it's almost jaw-dropping. Davie is the MVP of this enterprise, actually finding ways to ground Camilla's feelings in reality, but the rest lack the sort of charisma you desperately want them to have. Kaye is miscast (not her fault), while Hartrampf is a milquetoast villain who starts evil and has nowhere else to go. And leading lady de Waal, well, she carries a show that has nothing to carry, but she just doesn't have the same star quality the real Diana did.
Taping Diana was one of the savvier decisions I've seen theater folks make, and it helps that the show had the above-the-title muscle of Frank Marshall, the producer of the Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, and Jurassic World film franchises. He got Netflix to sign on and the distribution rights alone probably helped the production recoup its costs (conjecture on my part, but a likely supposition, at least). Whether it's a hit when it returns to the Longacre Theatre next month remains to be seen, but I'd strongly suggest they reevaluate the tone and play up the camp. As for me, the next time I have a rough day, I know just the thing to give me a good laugh.