Movie Review: Diana (The Musical)

If you are old enough to remember August 31, 1997, you no doubt know where you were when you heard the news of Princess Diana’s tragic death.  I was in the gym and all the TV monitors suddenly turned to a live image of an underpass in Paris.  The chyrons all said that the 36-year-old princess was injured in a car crash but it wasn’t long before they changed to say that she had died.  The world was bereft.

Twenty-four years later, Diana’s memory still looms large in the public consciousness.  Last year we had THE CROWN enter the Diana Years and we’ll have more of it when Season 5 drops in November 2022.  Before that though, we have Pablo Larrain’s SPENCER, starring Kristin Stewart. The film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last month to warm reviews and is scheduled to be released in the US and the UK early November.  There’s no word yet on when it will come to Hong Kong’s cinemas but I suspect it will around the end of the year.  If you absolutely have to have your fix of all things Diana now, you might be considering watching DIANA: THE MUSICAL, which landed on Netflix on October 1.  I’m here to tell you not to unless you’re a masochist.

DIANA is a live stage recording of the play that will open on Broadway on November 17, after a delay of almost a year a half due to covid.  The performance was recorded back in September 2020 without a live audience, which was probably a good thing as they may have had to edit out all the gasps of disbelief and boos coming from the audience’s mouths.  DIANA is based on a book by American playwright Joe DiPietro, who wrote “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”, which is the second-longest running Off-Broadway musical.  He also won two Tonys for his play, “Memphis”.  For this production, he collaborated with Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan on the music and lyrics.

The play is being billed as the “dazzling yet devastating life of Princess Diana through music” but if you’ve already watched Season 4 of THE CROWN and read, oh, let’s say, Diana, Princess of Wales’ Wikipedia page, you already know the story.  The only thing missing is the music and that’s where this production sinks to depths not seen since James Corden licked his paws in the movie version of CATS.  Each and every song is completely unmemorable, save for one about Diana’s so-called “revenge dress” where the F word is repeated a good forty times in its 3-1/2 minute running time.  The writing is often cringe-inducing with such sophomoric rhymes punctuating the lyrics as “the Thrilla in Manila with Camilla”, “Harry my ginger-haired son / You’ll always be second to none” and the pièce de resistance, “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell”, which comes from an AIDS patient whom Diana meets on her visit to a hospice.  But that’s not even the worst thing about this production.  It ends with Diana’s death.  Now if that isn’t one helluva downer, I don’t know what is.  Are the producers trying to create their own SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER?

Unfortunately, the horrible songs completely overshadow the performances, which are competent but not inspiring.  It pains me to mention it but I’m going to anyway because I found it a distraction.  Both Jeanna de Waal as Diana and Judy Kaye as QEII/Barbara Cartland are both a bit too zaftig for their roles.  Yes, I’m that shallow but that’s what watching a dumpster fire like DIANA can do to people.  Have I mentioned that Gareth Keegan plays James Hewitt as an off-brand MAGIC MIKE character or that I’ve seen more imaginative staging coming from high school productions?

If DiPietro and Bryan, and Tony-award winning director Christopher Ashley (“Come From Away”), would have put as much effort into their jobs as the costume department did in recreating Diana’s iconic wardrobe, they may have had something interesting.  Sadly, that’s not the case and DIANA is a steaming pile of doggie do. It is this year’s CATS.

DIANA is streaming now on Netflix.  Diana says, “Wounds heal but scars can last forever.”  I pray that I won’t be permanently scarred from watching this film.  Hate watch it if you want.  You’ll probably never see it on stage because I’m sure it will close after one or two performances, hopefully never to be seen live again.

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