Dynamic musical ‘Diana’ reigns at Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre

It’s impossible not to have a good time with David Bryan’s score, which moves a mile a minute, beautifully brought to life by the four main vocalists.

Even in death, we are still hounding Diana, Princess of Wales — for money, for fame, for drama, and now for the spectacle of musical theater in the bio-musical Diana. Despite the exploitation intrinsic to this project, I unfortunately loved every minute of watching Diana at Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre… “whatever love means, anyway.”

In its first production since its short Broadway stint and ill-fated Netflix recording (winner of Worst Picture at the 42nd Razzie Awards), the musical Diana is being produced in its regional premiere through May 18 way, way, way off Broadway in Frederick, Maryland. Like Diana herself, Diana has been unfairly maligned since the beginning, decried by critics as “morally mortifying” (The New York Times), “wretched” (The Washington Post), and “so bad you’ll hyperventilate” (The Guardian).

Lizzie Bartlett as Diana, Shane Lowry as Prince Charles, and Megan Elizabeth West as Camilla in ‘Diana.’ Photo courtesy of Way Off Broadway.

While some critiques of the musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan are undoubtedly warranted, they are no more so than those of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita or David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love. These musicals about captivating and complicated women, written by men, lack some of the nuanced understanding these tragic heroines demand, but if I wanted nuance, if I wanted to think critically about how these women shaped and were shaped by socio-political power struggles, why would I expect that from a two-hour pop musical written by males in musical theater? They have podcasts and audiobooks by women for all that — I’m at the theater to have a good time, damn it!

And have a good time I did. It’s impossible not to with David Bryan’s score, which moves a mile a minute, beautifully brought to life by the four main vocalists in this scrappy but dynamic production with music direction by Tina Marie Bruley.

After a satisfactory buffet dinner with dessert and drinks, the servers transform into actors, bringing the 1980s to life, starting with a member of the press villainously foreshadowing Diana’s death. As Diana (Lizzie Bartlett) entered, the audience was rapt — perhaps by her eerily accurate wig (by April Horn of Hair Worx Salon), but maybe even more so by Bartlett’s specific performance.

Bartlett deftly guides us through Diana’s life, seamlessly transforming from innocent teenage Diana, to the delicate and depressed Diana of her twenties, and finally into the determined activist and headstrong metaphorical queen of her thirties whose drive and impact stays with us still. Despite looking nothing like Diana, the impeccable wigs and Bartlett’s physicality made me believe she was the people’s princess, not just the character, but the woman we all love. Her journey, her arc, was so clear it reduced me to tears by the finale.

Her performance is only strengthened by her chemistry with Camilla (Megan Elizabeth West), Charles (Shane Lowry), and Queen Elizabeth (Anna Phillips-Brown). The surprise standout was undoubtedly West’s Camilla Parker-Bowles, who has never appeared more charismatic or sympathetic. West subtly makes the case for Camilla and Charles as a love story in the stirring “I Miss You Most on Sundays,” and her voice is a gorgeous match for Shane Lowry’s Charles.

Lowry’s singing voice might be mistaken for a young Adam Pascal’s, but his mannerisms and speech patterns all perfectly imitate the now King. His interpretation of “Diana (the Rage)” was worth the price of admission alone — like Bartlett, his arc is crystal clear and his transformation from petulant 32-year-old marrying a teenager to somehow even more petulant middle-aged horror was measured and earned.

Rounding out the four leads is Anna Phillips-Brown with all the gravitas and humor you would expect of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as well as Diana’s step-grandmother, romance author and icon Barbara Cartland. She brought such poise and humor to both.

TOP: Shane Lowry as Prince Charles, Lizzie Bartlett as Diana, and Anna Phillips-Brown as Queen Elizabeth; ABOVE: The wedding of Charles and Diana, in ‘Diana.’ Photos courtesy of Way Off Broadway.

These four performances were further enhanced by director Bill Kiska’s costume design, which somehow captured the magic of Diana’s many iconic outfits. Any Diana fan will be shocked and delighted to see how this small mountain theater pulls off some of the most glamorous moments of the 20th century, particularly in “The Dress” performed by Diana and Paul Burrell (Jordan B. Stocksdale). There are quick changes galore in both acts, and though there were some technical disruptions and choreography mishaps the night I attended, the costuming and performances make these mistakes seem minuscule.

Instead of a live band, this production uses music tracks and two drop-down mics, which leads to some strange sound problems. Sometimes, the vocals are drowned out by the tracks, which is a shame considering the incredible vocal work done by the royal family. The ensemble and staging were often cramped due to space constraints, but I found myself too wrapped up in the story of Diana to care.

Though DiPietro and Bryan reduce much of Diana’s tremendous life to her marriage, the beautiful song “Secrets and Lies” demonstrates why we— the girls and gays, especially — love Diana, even now. Depicting her 1987 visit to the Middlesex Hospital AIDS ward, “Secrets and Lies” captures the activist Diana, the loving Diana who believed in and fought for the dignity of every human being, who challenged the isolating stigma associated with AIDS with fury and fervor during the last 10 years of her life, and whose work continues with her son Prince Harry. Diana deserves more respect than the press and the palace ever gave her during her life or in her death, but for the public, this song explains why she remains the queen of our hearts.

As the finale approached, I found myself hoping for a different ending. Perhaps she doesn’t get into the car. Perhaps the press— and I am acutely aware I am part of them now writing this review — will lay off her, and let her live.

But Diana’s fate is sealed, no matter how we hope for a different ending. But we tell this story, this tragedy, not for its ending, but for what Diana inspires us to be and do through what she did in life. Diana and her legacy are more complicated than a campy musical, yet it’s this work that prompted my wife to turn to me, with tears in her eyes, and whisper: “It makes me long for a woman I never knew.”

Maybe we will never know Diana, in her fullness, in her completeness, as she deserved, but this musical — flawed as it is — might get us one step closer to knowing her, to loving her, long may she reign.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including a 10-minute intermission.

Diana plays through May 18, 2024, at the Way Off Broadway Theatre, 5 Willowdale Drive, Frederick, MD. Tickets, including a buffet dinner, are priced at $56–$61 ($49–$55 for children 6–12) and are available only through Way Off Broadway’s box office at 301-660-6600 (Tuesday–Friday 10 am–4 pm, Saturdays 12 pm–4 pm). Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. The theater does not sell tickets online. For more information, go to the website.

The cast and creative team credits are online here.

The buffet menu is here.

Book & Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music & Lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Bill Kiska


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