The story has been told hundreds of times — but not in song.
There’s plenty of a musical’s drama and overwhelming emotion in the thwarted fairy-tale that was the brief life of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales.
In 2019, the La Jolla Playhouse premiered “Diana: The Musical,” with book and lyrics by Tony Award-winner Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by Tony-winner David Bryan — the team behind the 2009 Tony-winning Best Musical, “Memphis,” which also premiered at the Playhouse and earned artistic director Christopher Ashley a Tony.
As if the iconoclastic approach to the royal narrative weren’t enough, when the show was shut down by COVID in 2020, after two weeks of previews, Ashley did something else daring.
In Fall 2020, he filmed the musical on the stage of the Longacre Theatre, to be aired on Netflix in advance of its November opening on Broadway. Unprecedented.
The result is beautiful to behold. It’s gorgeously designed: versatile sets by David Zinn; stunning costumes by William Ivey Long; galvanizing lighting by Natasha Katz; and crisp sound by Gareth Owen, with outstanding musical supervision and arrangements by Ian Eisendrath. The direction (Ashley) and choreography (Olivier Award-winner Kelly Devine) are energetic and ever-changing. And the performances are uniformly exceptional.
Jeanna De Waal, who looks the part of Diana more than ever, is marvelous in every way. And, comprising the other two legs of this ill-fated romantic triangle, Roe Hartrampf and Erin Davie are superb (if supremely unlikable) as Prince Charles and the (married) love of his life, Camilla Parker Bowles.
In this telling, Charles and Camilla are nothing short of nefarious, as they plot the marriage, plucking 19 year-old Diana out of near-obscurity, choosing her as the perfect subservient simpleton who can be molded and shaped by them to be the ideal wife that will allow them to continue their long-term affair. (Charles’ mother, Queen Elizabeth, it should be noted, didn’t even want to meet Camilla).
As the imperious monarch, who here shows a compelling bit of nostalgia and heart, two-time Tony winner Judy Kaye is splendid.
The film of the staged production is elegantly executed. In the years since “Diana” premiered in San Diego, there have been changes, some tweaking and tightening, with less emphasis on Diana’s (now purported) mental health issues: bulimia, depression, multiple suicide attempts.
The through-line of this telling is the opening (and credit-roll) number, “Underestimated.” The shy, budding Princess was certainly undervalued by all. By refusing to “obey,” follow rules and toe the (royal) line, by reaching out to the press and connecting with the people, by giving her attention, heart and money to the underserved, she found her authentic voice and made herself deeply loved and truly unforgettable.
- “Diana: The Musical” premiered on Netflix on Oct. 1. The Broadway production is scheduled to begin previews at the Longacre Theatre on Nov. 2. Opening night will be Nov. 17.
- Film running-time: 2 hrs.
- Tickets for the Broadway engagement, starting at $49, are now on sale (through November 2022) at telecharge.com.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.