Diana – World Premiere Musical

Princess Diana stirred up the complacent monarchy unlike anyone else in the history of the British Empire. She was able to evolve from a kindergarten teacher assistant into tabloid fodder and then into a global figure of philanthropy.

A new musical charting that arc opened at La Jolla Playhouse, and the results are mostly satisfying. Distilling such a story into a two and a half hour musical requires dexterity, and all involved worked very hard to do so. The sum of the impressive parts is just a bit less than a totally solid whole.

With book, lyrics and music from the team of Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, director Christopher Ashley has crafted a well-tuned cast. DiPietro and Bryan (the former is founder and keyboardist of Bon Jovi) won two Tony Awards for Memphis, including the 2010 Best Musical. They had a handful of other productions under their belt before ambitiously tackling the story of Diana.

Jeanna de Waal portrays the title role in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical DIANA, book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan, directed by Christopher Ashley, choreographed by Kelly Devine, running Feb 19 – April 14, 2019; photo by Little Fang.

(L-R): Jeanna de Wall as “Diana,” Erin Davie as “Camilla Parker Bowles” and Roe Hartrampf as “Prince Charles;” photo by Little Fang.

In the titular role, Jeanna de Waal brings a bold reading. Her previous work in Kinky Boots and American Idiot prepared her well for modern musicals. Opposite her are both Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles and Erin Davis as Camilla Parker Bowles. The evolving relationships among the three form the core of the story.

Hovering inevitably nearby is Queen Elizabeth, played ably by Judy (Phantom of the Opera) Kaye. The tensions among the four lead characters are portrayed well, giving the audience a sense of what was at stake as the anxieties increase. (How ironic that the musical opened contemporaneously with the real Queen Elizabeth posting her first photo on Instagram).

At the La Jolla Playhouse the first thing the audience sees, but may not immediately notice, is the slightly off balance framing of the stage. That nearly imperceptible visual cue warns us that not is all on the square among the characters. Diana calls Charles “sir” during their all-too-brief dozen dates before he proposes marriage. The chorus warns us early that trouble lies ahead, and uses a clumsy rhyme that this Cinderella will need an umbrella.

Among the dialogue throughout the evening there is some cheeky British wit that often defuses the tension. During one of their dates, a solo cello concert, Diana daydreams about dancing at a discotheque and the stage explodes into her daydream. Charles sits idly by.

Hartrampf probably has the hardest role, as both the philanderer and keeper of the monarchy. His voice is strong, even if he is playing a weak character. As Diana, de Waal grows admirably through her character’s challenges. Left uncertain outside the play is whether her dalliance with soldier James Hewitt resulted in her second child, but here the musical plays it safe.

The second act is stronger, mostly because the plot has been established, the characters are well-defined and the inexorable ending is approaching. The play’s most touching scene is “Secrets and Lies,” where Diana refuses orders by the monarchy when visiting AIDS patients. The photos of her shaking hands with AIDS patients did much to break down the horrible treatment the latter received. Mention is also made of her brave walk through an African field of land mines. Although Brits are more split on the role of the royal family, Americans remain fascinated. Whether The Crown on Netflix or myriad films like The Favourite, the foibles of the monarchy remain of interest.

(L-R) Lauren Livia Muehl and Jeanna de Waal; photo by Little Fang.

The ensuing glow in which Diana was held by the public created unbearable tension within her marriage. In one scene, staged like a boxing ring, she and Charles have a shouting match. The choreography by Kelly Devine is solid throughout the production; she worked with Ashley on the successful Come From Away.

Scenic design by David Zinn is inventive, and William Ivey Long’s costume design capture the era’s look, with an emphasis on Diana’s bolder couture. Ian Eisendrath’s musical direction is strong, and there are no weak links in the ensemble.

All in, Diana is an ambitious undertaking and it mostly works well.

The production has announced a second extension.

Ticket information here

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.