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Review | ‘Diana’ embodies the definition of a ‘why?’ musical

Jeanna de Waal in "Diana"
Photo: Matthew Murphy

What’s the British word for “schlock”?

Technically speaking, “Diana,” the super-cheesy Princess Diana soap opera musical, officially opened on Broadway on Tuesday night. But for all intents and purposes, it really “opened” itself up to the world last month, when a pro-shot film recording of the Broadway production (which was filmed last year at the theater) was made available on Netflix.

Contrary to the vicious ridicule it was greeted with on social media, “Diana” is not a disaster – it’s just not very good. If anything, it is an example of what the late composer Mary Rodgers called a “why musical,” as in a musical that is completely unnecessary. Why did the world need another retelling of the marriage of Diana and Charles, especially after it has been so thoroughly explored in the tabloids and onscreen (i.e. season four of “The Crown,” “Spencer” with Kristen Stewart)? You don’t even need to watch “Diana” in person or on Netflix to feel like you’ve already seen it.  

“Diana” begins somewhat ominously with paparazzi flashing their cameras and gleefully asking “was there ever a greater tabloid tale?” It then promptly introduces Diana (Jeanna de Waal, who tries to convey Diana’s change in behavior and personality over time), sets up her initial introduction to Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf, mopey and nasal), followed by Camilla (Erin Davie, resigned and unexpectedly sympathetic) and Queen Elizabeth (Judy Kaye, staunch with a sense of humor).

It hits all the moments you would expect to see in a Diana bio musical in a paint-by-numbers fashion: being courted, the royal wedding, the births of William and Harry, the surprise dance performance at the Royal Opera House, confronting Camilla (which inspires the unforgettable lyric “the thrilla in Manila with Camilla!”), her affair with cavalry officer James Hewitt, leaking stories to the press, doing charity work, and the inevitable divorce. Her tragic death in 1997 is described but not depicted.

The production (directed by Christopher Ashley, “Come From Away”) is slick, fast, and busy, relying on an over-energetic ensemble (which often chimes in with narration and commentary), distasteful choreography (full of pelvic thrusts and grinding), and Diana’s fashion parade of gowns (which often receive entrance applause).

The serviceable and forgettable ‘80s pop-style score is by book-writer and lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan (best known as the keyboard player of Bon Jovi), who previously wrote the considerably better 2009 musical “Memphis.” “I Will,” Diana’s song during the wedding, is catchy – and also happens to sound a whole lot like the 1987 Starship hit single “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”

All things considered, it is impressive that “Diana” managed to open on Broadway in spite of the shutdown (the show was in the middle of previews in March 2020) and the harsh internet buzz following its Netflix debut. It’s just a shame that “Diana” was not really worth doing in the first place. 

Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., thedianamusical.com.

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