A fairytale wedding, a beautiful princess and a dysfunctional family — there’s a lot of material to work with when it comes to the life of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Her life is the subject of a musical making its regional premiere at the Charleston Performing Arts Center as part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. The cabaret-style show, “Princess Diana, the Musical,” opened May 26 and runs through June 9. The show focuses on Diana’s complicated relationship with, and eventual divorce from, Prince Charles.
“This whole thing is about expectations,” said director Kurt Domoney, who joined the production after choreographing “Evita” at Opera North in New Hampshire. “The expectation of Diana, thinking she was marrying someone who loved her, having a husband, and his expectation that it was a business transaction.”
Marking the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, the Charleston production is one of a dozen happening independent of each other around the country this year, said Karen Sokolof Javitch, who co-wrote the musical. The Charleston production is smaller than others to accommodate the size of the 70-seat theater.
An admirer of Diana’s strength and compassion, songwriter Javitch first turned to her piano when she heard the news of the princess’ death in 1997.
“In my grief, I just wrote all these songs about her, not knowing I would eventually put them into a musical,” said Javitch, who came to Charleston from her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to check on the rehearsal and see the completed production. “It just kind of evolved. She was an extraordinary person.”
Javitch, a former teacher of the visually impaired now working on a children’s album, partnered with Elaine Jabenis, an Omaha-based writer, to create the show.
The House of Windsor has naturally inspired other works of art. But unlike the darkly dramatic play “King Charles III,” which was nominated for several Tonys in 2016, “Diana” is a love story. Mostly told through music, the show uses romantic ballads and comedy numbers — including a buddy song Diana sings with Fergie, the Duchess of York — to cover 20 years of the princess’ life.
The show also includes historical detail, such as Diana’s meeting with HIV/AIDS victims, which helped change public attitudes toward the disease. Fanciful costumes epitomizing the height of 1980s and 1990s fashion bring color to an otherwise sparse stage.
Playing the princess is New York-based actress Elysia Jordan, who said she prepared for the show by watching documentaries about Diana.
A petite, brown-eyed brunette, Jordan wears several wigs to approximate the look of the famously blonde and blue-eyed Princess Di. She said she was looking to capture Diana’s spirit.
“I hope that people learn more about her and can see past the drama and the tabloids, and see the situation she was in was a really tricky one,” Jordan said. “She must have felt very trapped.”
But equally trapped, according to Javitch, was Charles. Portraying the prince is Sean Yves Lessard, who is based in New York but once lived in Summerville.
Lessard said it could have been easy to vilify Charles, who maintained a relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles during his marriage to Diana. The musical shows Diana asking Charles for help adjusting to life in the spotlight, and Charles not knowing what to do.
“There’s more than meets the eye with this story,” said Lessard. “This is our take, but it shows them as real people.”
Dara McBride is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.