Netflix review: Sensational and sad 'Diana: The Musical'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Oct 04 2021 06:00 PM

A scene from 'Diana: The Musical.' Handout
A scene from 'Diana: The Musical.' Handout

The life story of Diana, Princess of Wales had been told and retold in countless forms -- in newspapers and tabloids first, then books and documentaries. She was also the subject of television movies and series ("Diana: Her True Story" in 1993, and "The Crown" Season 4 in 2020) and feature films ("Diana" in 2013 with Naomi Watts, and "Spencer" in 2021 with Oscar-touted Kristen Stewart). The fascination about her remains strong up to now.

It did not seem too farfetched then that a stage musical be written about her irresistible story. "Diana," the musical, had music and lyrics co-written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (who also wrote the book). It was first developed in La Jolla Playhouse at the University of California in San Diego in 2019, and was already supposedly Broadway-bound by 2020 but the pandemic hit. Last summer, it was announced that this show will finally be opening on November 17, 2021. 

This year, filmed stage productions of several hit Broadway shows have been released on streaming, led by "Hamilton" last year and "Come from Away" this year, on top of feature film versions of "In the Heights" and "Dear Evan Hansen." But in a bold marketing move, this filmed version of "Diana" was released on Netflix first a full month before its Broadway premiere. Whether this strategy will work to increase their ticket sales remains to be seen. 

Jeanna de Waal was a very good Diana with pretty and expressive face, and a strong soprano singing voice, the right fit for both upbeat and ballads. De Waal may look a bit too mature to be teenage Diana in the first few scenes, but she soon settled in quite well. She captured Diana's frustrations about her fruitless efforts to save her marriage as well as her indignation at being blatantly abandoned by her husband for a mistress. 

Roe Hartrampf and Erin Davie played the inseparable soulmates Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, both portrayed here as being pretty cold and heartless towards Diana. Of course, these characterizations were no surprise for a show about the idealistic soul whose life they lay in despair and ruin. It was unbelievable as both these personalities are still very much alive, yet their roles in Diana's short life are villified over and over again.

Judy Kaye played two very distinct scene-stealing roles, the imperious mother-in-law Queen Elizabeth II and the flighty funny Barbara Cartland (Diana's favorite writer who became her step-grandmother). Kaye opened the second act as Cartland with a racy song introducing the sexy royal riding instructor in "Here Comes James Hewitt." Towards the end of the show, she sang Queen Elizabeth's soaring stately song about her life as "An Officer's Wife."

Some members of the ensemble played supporting characters who get their own featured numbers, like Gareth Keegan as James Hewitt (in quartet songs like "Him & Her (& Him & Her)" and "Just Dance") and Bruce Dow as Diana's butler Paul Burrell (singing about "The Dress"). Others were Holly Ann Butler as Sarah Spencer, Zach Adkins as Andrew Parker-Bowles, and Nathan Lucrezio as author Andrew Morton. 

The costume department recreated some of Diana's most famous outfits, like the red Christmas sheep sweater (1981), her green and white polka dot maternity dress (1982), and that slinky off-shoulder "revenge dress" (1994). The blue dress she wore when she shook hands with the AIDS patient Graham (Chris Medlin) was not the same, but he did point out its errant white collar. There were a couple of theatrical magic moments of "blink and you'll miss it" costume changing, the best one involving her iconic wedding gown itself. 

There were some campy scenes like a shirtless James Hewitt on a mechanical bull and an actual Diana v. Camilla confrontation catfight. The style of the songs were a little old-fashioned, complete with neat little rhymes at the end of each line. For example, the name of Camilla was notably rhymed with "Thrilla in Manila" in one song and "Godzilla" in another. The song numbers were entertaining and some lyrics carried a healthy dose of British wit, but no song was quite so immediately memorable after the first listen. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."