Review: Live on Broadway, Diana: The Musical Is a Cult Classic in the Making
The Princess Diana bio-musical finds its footing at the Longacre Theatre after the Netflix version got memed to hell.
During the worst of the pandemic, the cast and creative team of Diana: The Musical, which had been in early previews when Broadway shut down, bubbled together to film the show for Netflix. At the time, it was a savvy decision by power producers Beth Williams and Frank Marshall; the distribution deal alone probably helped the show recoup at least some of its investment at a time when no one really knew when theater would return. A little over a month ago, before the cast even went back into rehearsals for the in-person return, the taped iteration began streaming, and social media tore it to shreds.
I've watched Diana — a Princess Diana biomusical written by Memphis Tony winners Joe DiPietro and David Bryan — several times now on TV. It has become our family go-to when we're feeling as blue as David Zinn's icy set. My initial review called into question what everyone involved (a list that includes Tony winning Come From Away director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Kelly Devine) thought the tone of the piece was. Shot without an audience, sans applause breaks, and with the actors playing it as straight as Queen Lear, Diana on Netflix is performed in a way that is completely at odds with the material. It registered, to me, like the next Rocky Horror, where people dress up, get drunk, and yell things at the stage — so why were they treating it like it was The Crown?
Live at the Longacre Theatre, where it has now finally opened, Diana: The Musical plays like gangbusters. The material of the show is what it is. DiPietro's book has all the depth of a seventh grader's essay, the lyrics range from tacky to ludicrous, and all of Bryan's soaring '80s pop ballads sound like other, more famous songs. You can also question why, in 2021, we still have musicals about women being created almost entirely by men. But the in-person version knows exactly what it's doing. Maybe Ashley and the team read the reviews and leaned into the camp. Maybe it was always there but it was obscured by a Steadicam. Either way, everyone involved is on the same page now, and Diana is a rollicking journey that's made even better by the addition of a cocktail...Or three.
Written in time-lapse mode by DiPietro, Diana fast-forwards through the life and times of the People's Princess (Jeanna de Waal, outrageously good). Nineteen-year-old Diana is courted by the 32-year-old Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf in stock villain mode) at the encouragement of his BFF-with-benefits, Camilla (Erin Davie, giving 115 percent), despite the consternation of his mummy, the Queen (two-time Tony winner Judy Kaye). Diana and Charles go on to get married and, over the course of a single six-minute song, have two children. She's hounded by cape-twirling paparazzi, becomes a populist hero, visits AIDS patients, wears the revenge dress (William Ivey Long's costumes are even more fabulous in person), and ascends into a beam of flashbulbs after dying in a car wreck. If you're looking for nuance, go on Wikipedia.
There are still moments where the show takes itself way too seriously. The book scenes, particularly in the first act, are sleepy. A couple of the more frequently memed lines (farewell to that spectacular rhyme "Darling, you're holding our son/so let me say jolly well-done") have been changed in favor of slightly less ridiculous ones (don't worry, Chris Medlin as the AIDS patient who sings "I may be unwell, but I'm handsome as hell" is still there in all of his perfectly earnest glory). But Ashley has guided his cast to feed off the audience's rowdiness. Take a look at the glance de Waal throws at us after the instant-classic lyric "Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio." It is the very personification of the fire emoji.
As for the performances, they're much superior on stage than on screen — it's actually proof-positive about how much actors feed off a live audience. Kaye, who I once thought was vaguely miscast and a little stuffy, is a hoot in real life, particularly when she transforms into Diana's step-grandmother, tacky romance novelist Barbara Cartland, and lusts after Keegan's shirtless James Hewitt, who rises from below the stage and sings an Act 2 opener about how big his dick is. It's that kind of show, they all know it, and they're absolutely living for it.
The crown here, though, is shared by the off-the-charts performances of de Waal and Davie. Together, the two women bring gravitas and self-assurance to these two enemies, and their climactic confrontation really is the "thrilla in Manilla with Diana and Camilla" that the lyrics promise. It's a delight to watch them spar, Real Housewives-style, and I wish the show had more of that and less of the ponderous anti-romance of Diana and Charles.
With more than a few shades of Evita, Diana is a throwback to the mega-pop operas of 40 years ago: a little silly, a little tacky, a little offensive, but generally just fun. Leaning into the lunacy has helped this show come into its own, and if it finds its audience, we've got the next cult classic on our hands.