The story of Diana, late Princess of Wales, has considerable grabber potential in this era of celebrity overkill: Gorgeous, young, slim, blonde, fertile and fabulously photogenic, she’s just what England’s royal family needs to rise above the stodgy image of the so-proper queen and her pet dogs except…
…The princess’s husband, the heir-in-waiting for the crown, has the hopeless hots for somebody else already married, a bit older, a bit more frumpy, the living proof that there’s no accounting for taste. So England’s first official royal divorce sets the scene for even more explosive headlines, right up to and including the oddly tasteless auto fatality death in Paris.
Handled just right, this is musical-theatre gold, with potential for fashions, passions and rations of sad but stiff upper lips. There’s a certain amount of all this in the new show by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan now premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse, but despite sleek looks from a trio of top designers and the galloping whoopee direction by Christopher Ashley, none of these people, or even the world around them, really come to life.
Partly it’s a casting problem. There are just four leading characters – the Queen, the Prince and Princess and Camilla the Other Woman – and the first three are so vividly familiar even to casual observers that they need to look right. As Charles, Roe Hartrampf avoids the wooden poise of the original by an odd mix of petulance and lust that equals the wrong kind of silliness. As Queen Elizabeth II, the resourceful Judy Kaye ignores her lack of physical resemblance and substitutes instead a regal presence edged with patient rue, recalling (only perhaps in jest) the old days when domestic messes were dealth with by decapitation.
The real problem, however, is the title role, now played by Jeanna de Waal. While she has all the energy, pipes, carriage and cupidity needed, she simply doesn’t resemble the famous Di. Actually, Erin Davie, playing Camilla Parker Bowles, has more of the Diana unicorn look and heft (plus the same leading-lady tools of Ms. De Waal) whereas her own role requires more the proper polish of a brown wren mum who’s surprised to find herself in such a scandal.
Twenty or so hard-working, costume-switching and very varied colleagues play the population of the United Kingdom, from palace lackies and ballet stars to AIDS patients and rodent paparazzi, with a confidant sleight-of-hand that Ashley and choreographer Kelly Devine apply with purposeful aplomb. Haley Bennett conducts a slightly under-sized band in clever arrangements by Ian Eisendrath of yet another utilitarian but undistinguished set of songs.
For a story that really did change English history as much as any narrative in the last century, this version leaves some big holes. The Queen is humanized…to a point. There are no politicians even passing through (except a vague Margaret Thatcher aside) and, surprisingly, the whole industry of high and hip fashion is more shown than mentioned.
Not that the words lack kick. “He is a third-rate Henry VIII but she is Godzilla!” has a nice ping. The disdain of snoot is neatly checked off, after an evening of Mstislav Rostropovich playing Bach, with Diana’s comment on “the commie with the cello.” The lyrics – “Don’t blame her, tame her; She’s threatening the throne!” – are a couple of levels clunkier. And the best song of the show is Diana’s helpful assistant’s (Bruce Dow) advice that she meet a climaxing scandal by going out for the evening wearing the most defiant “…fuh, fuh, fuh, fuh, fuh, fuh, fuchking” dress.
Great fun, of course, but the piece also demands sympathy and admiration for its subject. There’s an extended scene, with song, in an AIDS/HIV ward when she discards the rubber gloves and reacts personally with every hopeless victim of the disease then so new and terrifying. And there’s a quiet exchange between Queen and Prince agreeing that, as a mother to her sons, she is beyond reproach.
By then, however, too much time has been spent setting the scene for an ending finally reduced to actors stepping out of the line and delivering the latest: Land mines! Going to America!
A car wreck in Paris…
Diana’s path to Paris begins here with a dear aunt, the super-popular author of breathless romances Barbara Courtland (played with extravagant glee by Ms. Kaye) implanting the Princess Gene in a willowy blonde niece. If the authors had some idea of a cautionary turn to such phantasies, though, they missed a turn or two. This show is much more at home with a scene such as the two beds of copulating titled couples, sighing over hopeless futures as they are swooped about the stage.
David Zinn has imagined a cold and soulless environment, with stolid grandeur out of focus and decorative accents often lost in Natasha Katz’s jagged, knowing illumination. But it’s William Ivy Long (channeling, as he says in a delightful LJP program note, “his inner eight-year-old girl…”) whose costumes make this show such a bright, shiny object.
(Continues in the Mandel Weiss Theatre at UCSD Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and at 7 p.m. Sundays through April 14, 2019.)