Sunday, March 10, 2019

Once Upon A Time There Was A Princess Called “Diana”

The new musical “Diana” is officially here. The year’s long anticipated opening of the La Jolla Playhouse’ s singular titled musical, “Diana” is making its world premiere at the Mandell Weiss Theatre through April 17th and is the talk of the town and then some. 

Creative team Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics), David Bryan (music and lyrics), Ian Eisendrath (music direction and arrangements), Kelly Devine (choreography) and with Christopher Ashley directing are, I’m sure, hoping that the future of this fast paced semi-auto- biographical sung through musical will have the same future as “Memphis”.
Jeanna de Waal, Erin Davie and Roe Hartrampf
Princess Diana, Lady Di or Lady Diana Spencer, 20 -year old assistant -kindergarten -teacher married her 32- year old Prince (of Wales, i.e. Charles,) in what some were then calling the wedding of the century, is at the core of this operetta. “Once Upon A Time”, “In The Pages of Her Books” and “The Wedding”.

If you did not follow the comings and goings of the Royals in the early 80’s, you might not have known that Diana was a naïve, virgin prone to depression and bouts with eating disorders. She overplayed her hand when she became smitten with what she thought was the handsome and worldly Prince who once dated her sister. Needing an heir, (he was in his early 30’s) he obeyed his mother’s (the Queen) direction and married.  “What Does Love Mean Anyway?”

What she would learn eventually was that the Prince was in love with and having an affair with a married woman, Camilla Parker Bowles and that ‘Mummy” (Queen Elizabeth) encouraged Charles, heir to the throne, to marry Diana and settle down, have a family and stop seeing Camilla. Unfortunately, neither could stay away from the other and no good would come of it. (“He’s about to propose to someone he barely knows”)

Much of what was read about in the tabloids or watched then on the telly and “being the most famous person in the world” much to Charles’ chagrin, is reenacted as when Diana is hounded by the paparazzi, (“Snap, Click”) and more than once, or when she visited patients with HIV, tried to self destruct, or upstaged Charles at social events. She was her happiest when her first son William, now Prince, was born or later when she was out in the fields detecting mines or hugging children with rare diseases, and being outside the walled castles. 
Judy Kaye 
We knew how fragile she was and how completely unprepared was she for the role she stepped into. But the music plays on and the dancing captures the imagination in this non stop blizzard like production superficially tagging every one of the principals making them all not very nice or as caricatures of their real selves. The nastiness looked like day- time TV drama until tragedy struck and everyone made excuses for hers and their behavior. 

For Diana, as she disappeared further and further into the abyss, her survival instincts switched into high gear when Camilla just happened to be at every social function she and The Prince attended. And when she found a note from her rival about his plans to marry before she knew a ring was in the offering, all bets were off.

She then went into overdrive when she decided to chose her own wardrobe (“The Dress”) and become her own person or master of her fate. Unfortunately she comes across as a vindictive and self-centered, childish and bored; perhaps trying to recover some of her pride, lost innocence or lost romances while flaunting her red headed and muscular paramour James Hewitt. “Here Comes James Hewitt”.

As a friend said exiting the theatre, ‘there are no sympathetic characters here’.
Jeanna de Waal, Roe Hartrampf and Thomas Matos (photographer)
The production however is more fun and engaging in spite of everything we knew ahead of time, even knowing how it ends. This is not director Christopher Ashley’s first dog and pony show. His recent 2017 Tony award for “Come From Away” along with The Craig Noel Award for Direction is just the tip of the iceberg that includes: “Escape To Margaretville” and “Sideways”.  

His well chosen and experienced cast from top to bottom with Jeanna de Waal, who has bee working for two years on becoming Diana, pays off as she transforms herself from shy young schoolgirl/ teacher Diana Spencer to sophisticated and worldly fashion plate to caring and devoted mother giving her two sons a more worldly view outside the palace grounds (not reenacted here).

For those remembering, hers is a reasonable facsimile to the real deal with a downward and coy look away, a gentle and soft spoken, somewhat serious personality pushing her hair aside to being almost too honest when interviews with the press asked personal questions, even for a princess. (“Simply Breathe”)

Her Prince charming, Roe Hartrampf, himself a long stretch of a guy with many of the mannerisms of the Prince portrays him as a cold- blooded real jerk who never did understand his young wife. He’s perfect as the put upon and jealous husband, hands stuffed into jacket side pockets, wondering how he got into this mess and how he’ll get out of it.

Standing along side the Prince (figuratively) all the way, Erin Davies’ Camilla pushes then backs off, then becomes a permanent figure as Charles makes the move that seals his relations with Diana. (“The Show”) He just doesn’t care what people on the streets are saying and aligns himself with the divorcee and she relishes the effect it has on her rival. Both play well of each other.
Jeanna de Waal and Lauren Livia Muehl
Judy Kay’s Queen Elizabeth might have been the scene -stealer if the play didn’t revolve around Diana’s short-lived life and times. Ms. Kay’s queenliness makes her mark early on but it’s her lovely and voice that steals the show. “The Dress” with a bombardment of F-bombs, is repeated over and over again, but when it comes to the Queen’s time around, mmm-mmm’s the four letter words; it does bring the house gown.

Speaking of ‘The Dress’ William Ivy Long’s costumes are the talk of the town and if nothing else, one has to admire how he dressed Diana from awkward young girl to sophisticated Princess of Wales. And noting that Erin Davies’ Camilla had but two costume changes compared to De Waal’s Diana’s extensive wardrobe might just be a subliminal message.

In spite of it all, Diana will go down in history as a loving mother, generous and gentle with time to work on her charities (that her sons still support) and pathfinder.

While the music in “Diana” isn’t something you will hum exiting the theatre, and some tweaking will be taking place as the collaborators see what works best and what does not.

So far no plans are on the table for a move to Broadway (at least that have been announced) but I would see it now before it does. The Playhouse has a fine record of at least transferring these shows. How they fare is up to the audience and so far, most of what I’ve heard, is positive because once upon a time there was a princess called Diana and everyone loves a princess.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through April 14th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858-550-1010
Production Type: Musical
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Ticket Prices: Start at $90.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss Theatre
Photo: Little Fang


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