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WORLD PREMIERE OF “DIANA” – A NEW MUSICAL ON STAGE AT LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE

By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

The stage of the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre exploded in a dazzling display of lights, sound, and dancers, on March 7th, to inform the adoring acolytes of the world’s favorite fairytale princess, the United Kingdom’s Princess of Wales Diana, was in the building, at least, in spirit for two hours.

I can think of only a few larger-than-life-people who commanded such reactions when making public appearances as Diana did.  That list includes: “The King of Rock and Roll” Elvis Presley (who’s no longer in the building), JFK, Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles, as a group, Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandi, and, perhaps, the Pope.  Depending on one’s age or era, idols have come and gone like roman candles at a 4th of July celebration. Brilliantly bright at first only to fade when that inevitable time comes.

The legacy “Princess Di” left to her family and fans, is multi-faceted.  There is the public life of Diana which is viewed through the omnipresent, frenetic, paparazzi, media/reporter mania that constantly surrounds her.  Her private life, however, is one filled with a less than fairytale existence.  Her marriage at twenty to Prince Charles, her relations with new in-laws, who were not enamored of her, along with the strong pull of traditions of the English Royal Family, and the expectations and pressures that accompany all public figures is weighty and crushing; all the while dealing in private with her depression and bulimia. It’s no wonder why woman s work is never over whether one is a princess or not.

La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley nabbed the world premiere rights to this musical stage production about Diana and Charles who as heir to the British throne, who at 70 years of age is still waiting.  Ashley, one of the country’s leading stage directors (he has film directing credits too), immediately contacted his old Tony-winning collaborators Joe Dipietro, librettist and lyricist and David Bryan, composer/lyricist to once more join him in a production at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Both came on board for “Diana”, their new musical with Ashely as director seeking to have lightning strike again for his “Diana” production as it did for the Tony-winning musical “Memphis” in 2009; another production by the Dipietro/Bryan team that was born on the stage of the La Jolla Playhouse before wowing Broadway audiences.

There are 23 performers in this sprawling, beautifully costumed production created by designer William Ivey Long. The story with eye-popping set designs by David Zinn, and lighting by Natasha Katz is still set in the actual locations that Diana visited, but the writers and director have elected to update the lyrics in some numbers – there are 22 songs and numbers in all – that the creators feel will be more in touch with the young audiences of today.

It remains to be seen, however, if the logic of their decisions will be borne out.  My instincts tell me it would be prudent to scrub the number “The Words Came Pouring Out”, with its repetitive one word- expletive.  I know it’s the young people’s revenge to the older folks and cleverly done, but producers are notoriously focused on box office receipts. I think I know how that musical number and lyrics will go over in the Dubuque, Iowa’s and the Raleigh, North Carolina’s of America.

The glittering eye candy production stars Jeanna de Waal as Diana, Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles, Erin Davie as Camilla Parker Bowles, and Judy Kaye as Queen Elizabeth II.  All in fine voice. Ms. de Waal is appealing and nicely captures the essence of the real life statuesque and photogenic Diana.  But, the handsome Mr. Hartrampf is stuck with the stodgy and selfish traits that Charles brings to the marriage.  Erin Davie, humanizes Camilla, as best she can. The “other woman” in Charles’ life is not a sympathetic role.  Judy Kaye, as Elizabeth II, has the look and the stuff of being the keeper of the flame of England’s heritage and traditions dating back some 930 years.  She also gets to sing one of the best songs in the show “An Officer’s Wife”.  It’s a poignant tribute to the women who soldier on (no pun intended) in their duty, and their loyalty as Royal wives.  The scene is revealing in a personal way for Elizabeth II, concerning the choices she made for King and Country.

The ensemble cast of 23, features high-octane dance numbers inventively choreographed by Kelly Devine, are terrifically executed and keep the story moving forward as does the nine piece orchestra under the baton of Ian Eisendrath.   Director Ashley also deserves kudos for his on stage traffic management skills in dealing with those 23 performers along with the show’s  special effects.

This production, however, feels rushed in its on-stage execution.  The entire company is charged with trying to fit too much public and private information into its two hours and fifteen minutes of the Libretto and the music score.   Some judicious trimming is order to allow the audience to fully process and narrow the focus as a way of becoming fully engaged in the very compelling and heart-felt Princess Diana story.  I know It’s not easy to throw one’s baby out with the bathwater but everything these days is scrutinized through the lens of “bottom line” driven decisions.  One is also looking to discover where the illusive “soul” of this production really is.

“Diana” the musical, performs at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre and runs through April 14, 2019.  And remember … a great nation deserves great art. Support the Arts!

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