Jeanna de Waal and Roe Hartampf in "Diana." Photo by Little Fang
A spirit of rebellious fun envelops the world-premiere musical Diana, which the “People’s Princess” might have well appreciated. What in lesser hands could have been conceived as a pious bore is just the opposite in La Jolla Playhouse’s production written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. This “biopic” of a musical chronicles in whirlwind fashion (that’s saying something in a two-hour, 30-minute show) the life of Lady Diana Spencer/Princess Diana of Wales with tongue quite often in cheek. Whether it’s portraying the paparazzi in all its predation (the tune “Snap, Click”) or the liberated Di retaliation-dancing in her famous F-U dress (“The Dress”), this production directed by the Playhouse’s Christopher Ashley shines brightest when it’s not taking itself too seriously.
The book by DiPietro leans heavily on the first stage of Diana’s (Jeanna de Waal) life, from her meeting with Prince Charles (Roe Hartampf) through their storied wedding, the birth of William and Harry, and up to the point where the princess realizes that her marriage is a sham and that Charles’ true love is the married Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie). The post-divorce years do show Diana’s humanitarian efforts, but there’s no mention of boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and the accident that ended her life is treated briefly and very tastefully.
The musical score has its share of swelling ballads, to each of which the gifted de Waal brings credible passion. But the novelty numbers featuring the press and the dress, and one introducing the hunky James Hewitt with whom Diana had an affair, are the most memorable.
Judy Kaye does double duty as Queen Elizabeth and romance novelist Barbara Cartland, soaring over the top in the latter role, but who cares? Yet every performance except for de Waal’s is arguably eclipsed by William Ivey Long’s costume design, which in its attention to historical authenticity will blow away Diana fanatics and lifetime royals watchers.
With its gravitas taking a back seat to spectacle and flash, Diana may disappoint the reverent and the proprietary. For others who simply crave a couple hours of pure entertainment – Broadway, anyone? – this show is sure to please.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.