“No matter the cause, she moves with such skill, she seems to know secrets I never will,” goes one of the many howlers in David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s lay-it-on-thick score. Slick staging by director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Kelly Devine — the team responsible for the affecting “Come From Away” — applies a patina of polish. But neither they nor a cast led by Jeanna de Waal as the ill-treated princess add a scintilla of fresh illumination to the events of Diana’s life. Why oh why, you think, don’t they just let the woman rest in peace?
This royal pain of a production for some reason debuted on Netflix before starting on Broadway, so at least I knew what I was in for. That is to say: a chorus of paparazzi in trench coats, tiresomely repeating “Snap click!” and whirling like sinister dervishes; a banal dramatization of the night Diana danced at the Royal Opera House, footnoted by doggerel comments such as “Every move was on point, she electrified the joint”; the accomplished musical theater actress Judy Kaye, woodenly playing the brow-furrowing queen and also Diana’s flamboyant stepgrandmother, romance novelist Barbara Cartland, in a role tailor made for Dame Edna.
Speaking of tailoring, not even the king’s ransom worth of dresses by William Ivey Long make much of a splash. That’s because it was the way the real Diana wore them that made them dazzlers.
And then there is the arrival of Diana’s paramour, James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan) at the top of Act 2, in the aptly titled “Here Comes James Hewitt.” Ginger-maned, bare-chested and prop-horse-mounted, he’s presented as an equestrian refugee from Chippendales. “James Hewitt did do it in a princess’s bed,” the chorus sings. Gee, thanks, “Diana.” We needed that.
De Waal is accorded the requisite inventory of power ballads, which she rattles off as if completing a checklist. Poor Erin Davie takes on the grim task of playing Camilla Parker Bowles, Prince Charles’s true love, portrayed here as coolly manipulative. (For retrograde theatrics, no scene tops the basement confrontation between Diana and Camilla, fighting over “their man.”) As Charles, Roe Hartrampf is all imperious whining in mouse-that-roared uniforms and Savile Row suits.
The musical posits Britain as a land of fancy chandeliers, postcard palaces and plummy accents — what, no beefeaters?!? Imagine a panel of American sportscasters debating the ins and outs of cricket, and you get a sense of “Diana’s” grasp of its subject. An interlude satirizing the stultifying fatuousness of the royal mission is followed by one that fawningly celebrates the magnificence of Diana deigning to speak to Welsh well-wishers. And her epiphanic declaration of independence from the royal family is depicted as her decision to wear better clothes.
If the authors had picked a thematic lane — kitsch, pure pageantry, dysfunctional family dynamics, monarchical history, the media’s celebrity obsession — one could begin to look for deeper meaning. But “Diana” tries on all of the above, as if rummaging desperately through Diana’s voluminous wardrobe, only to emerge looking wretched.
Diana, book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Music supervision, Ian Eisendrath; sets, David Zinn; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Gareth Owen. About 2½ hours. $39-$240. At Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.