When “Diana The Musical” debuted on Netflix, Broadway’s trickle-down tradition wobbled.
The system has been in place for generations: Shows are seen by a few people who have the right location (New York) and bank account (flush). The rest of us must wait for a tour … or a local production … or, occasionally, a movie.
But “Diana” (shown here) goes in reverse. It reached Netflix on Oct.1, seven weeks before its Broadway opening.
That may be just as well. Reviews from Broadway-type critics have mainly ranged from negative to REALLY negative. But at home, watching it for free, I rather enjoyed it, flaws and all.
Interestingly, this was directed by Christopher Ashley, head of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. He also directed “Come From Away” – at La Jolla, on Broaway and for a splendid Apple TV+ production – winning waves of praise and a Tony.
Both musicals are based on true stories, but the difference is key: We knew nothing about “Come From Away” (which had Canadians welcoming stranded outsiders after 9/11) and were fascinated by every detail;we know way too much about Lady Diana already, so more is needed.
The musical fails at first, when it tries to tackle the serious parts. The long opening number – well-sung by the star, Jeanna de Waal – is competent, without being more.
But “Diana” soon turns to the light side and scores. Charles takes Diana to a Bach concert (shown here) by Mstislav Rostropovich, considered the world’s greatest cellist; she dearly wishes this was Elton John.
“Diana” shines when it’s staying light. The confrontation of Charles’ two lovers becomes “the thrilla in Manilla with Diana and Camilla.” There’s fun with Diana’s donning of a “revenge dress” (here dubbed an “F You dress”) and with her as “the girl in the dress.”
That last part allows Ashley to flash some stagecraft, as Diana seems to change clothes instantly. Earlier, he seems to have a stagnant bride in gown, while Diana wanders the stage – then semi-instantly pops up inside that gown. Moments like that freshen a familiar story.
So does the emergence of the late Barbara Cartland, who plays an odd little role in Diana’s life.
When Diana was 5, her mother abandoned the family. As this version tells it, the girl dug into some of Cartland’s 723 novels – many of which had a sheltered and virginal young woman meeting a worldly guy. A small irony is that Diana would live a true version of that story; a bigger irony: Cartland’s daughter would leave her husband and marry Diana’s father. At 14, the future princess met the romance queen … who became her step-grandmother.
That’s enough to let the show use Cartland as an alternate narrator, loosening the tone. Diana’s lover (James Hewitt, a riding instructor and military officer) arrives bare-chested and horseback, just like a Cartland hero; we soon get enough sexual puns to amuse any 12-year-olds in the audience.
Cartland and Queen Elizabeth are both played skillfully by Judy Kaye, who has done at least nine Broadway musicals, winning Tonys in two of them. Kaye and Erin Davie (as Camilla Parker Bowles) are the familiar Broadway faces; Roe Hartrampf – excellent and Charles – and de Waal are newer.
The show is written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (the Bon Jovi keyboardist), a combination that clicked for the musical “Memphis,” but stumbles over the serious parts here. Maybe next time, they’ll try “Diana The Musical Comedy.”