You don’t need a passport to take in the drama of the English royal family, you just need to go to the La Jolla Playhouse to see DIANA. Extended through April 14th, you can let the musical melodrama sweep you away into a story of monarchs, marriages, and one not so happily ever after that turns one woman into one of the world’s most famous English roses.
No matter your age, Diana Spencer is a name that most people know. In 1981 she became the quintessential “fairytale bride”” as she went from nineteen year old assistant kindergarten teacher to married to the Prince of Wales and achieved worldwide fame for it. Turns out that fairytale didn’t have the usual ending and this musical follows the journey of Diana growing up and finding her voice and place in the world.
Personal problems aside, Diana was known for wielding fashion to make a statement- starting with that famous wedding dress which coincidentally opens the show. The costume designer William Ivey Long brings this and many other beloved outfits of Diana’s to life in gorgeous costumes for the leading lady. With approximately 32 different looks for Diana alone it is a beautiful trip down memory lane of the fashion of the 1980’s as well as a wonderful visual of how this young girl blossomed into a powerful woman.
The first act races through the whirlwind courtship and marriage of Diana (Jeanna De Waal) and Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf), with some strategic encouragement from the Queen (Judy Kaye), and Charles’ “good friend” Camilla (Erin Davie). As Diana navigates through motherhood, dodging the paparazzi (who have a number wearing trench coats that make them seem more like flashers than reporters), and trying to save her marriage, she finally decides to use her fame and fashion to her benefit.
De Waal has a good voice for the pop score and makes the journey from shy young girl to self-assured woman feel totally natural. Hartrampf is the Charles the real Charles wishes he was, with some killer runs in the songs, and seeming more personable than the actual Charles could ever manage. Davie is cool and logical as a Camilla who knows how the game is played, and Kaye makes a warm and very proper Queen.
This new musical by Joe Dipietro and David Bryan, with direction by Christopher Ashley has a wholly American energy, aesthetic, and approach to this very English institution and story.
As everyone knows, all roses have thorns and all British Aristocrats are the villains in American entertainment; this holds true here as well. As Diana’s meek English rose persona grows into one with some sharpness and bite, the British aristocracy gets their kicks mocking her .
The show does attempt to tell the story of the other people impacted by this relationship but in trying to present all sides evenly, it ends up feeling unfocused. So much time speeds by and many things get touched upon but no real depths are revealed about Diana, Charles, or their marriage.
The only thing the show does know and oft repeats is that Diana was a “pretty girl in a pretty dress.” Her only power and value is derived from her being a woman in connection to a man- whether that is her husband and his belief everything she did was purely in defiance of his will, the sons she has and how they impacted her desire to stay married, or the confidence she acquires when she has an affair with a handsome soldier. Overall, this show could have benefited from getting some notes from the female perspective when working on the story.
Diana’s actual moments of defiance and accomplishments are raced through. From the first act montage of stepping out in couture fashion to make a statement, and even worse reduces her numerable charitable accomplishments to a recited list in the final minutes of the show, robbing her actual deeds of any examination, power, or impact.
Besides a moving scene in the AIDS ward of a hospital (even then presented as an act of defiance to her husband and the royal protocol), the things Diana pursued are put on the back burner in respect to her contentious personal life and how much she is upsetting the order of things.
She became the hero of her own story by finding her voice and using her privilege and status to help those who were being overlooked. That is an infinitely more compelling story than the very well documented fact that her marriage was “a bit crowded.”
As gossip sites and soap operas can attest it doesn’t means it will lack in popularity. Under the guise of plumbing the emotional depths of a complex marriage the show instead finds entertainment by turning Diana into “Dynasty.”
DIANA is playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through April 14th. For ticket and show time information go to www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Photo credit: Jeanna de Wall as “Diana” and Roe Hartrampf as “Prince Charles” (with Tomas Matos as the photographer) in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical DIANA, book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan, directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley; photo by Little Fang.