Saturday, April 25, 2015

Renée Fleming makes her Broadway debut in Living on Love

     Opera superstar Renée Fleming looks as if she is having a ball with her Broadway debut in Living on Love, Joe DiPietro’s charming new comedy at the Longacre Theatre.  Actually the entire cast appears to be enjoying themselves, hamming it up in this show that seems modeled after a 1930s screwball comedy.

     Like those earlier shows, the outcome of this one, set in 1957 and based on the play Peccadillo by Garson Kanin, will never be in doubt.  It’s the getting to the end that is fun.  Director Kathleen Marshall keeps the action hopping for two hours.

     The plot centers around two fading luminaries of the music world, Fleming as Raquel De Angelis, an opera singer who has played the world’s great stages and now must settle for upstate New York and Fort Lauderdale — “Do they sing in Fort Lauderdale,” she asks — and her husband, Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills), a once renowned conductor who spends his days mostly in bed or drinking wine.  

     Trying not to acknowledge their changing circumstances, they insist on being referred to as The Diva and The Maestro.  And don’t dare mention the name Maria Callas to her or Leonard Bernstein to him, not to these raging egos.  

     In keeping with this style of comedy, their rage is often directed at each other.  I thought of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart song “I Wish I Were in Love Again” with its line “the conversation with the flying plates,” only in their case it’s snow globes, given to each other from locations on their concert tours, that go flying. 

     Of course this mix is going to need a younger, on-their-way-up couple to balance The Diva and The Maestro and these parts are filled quite nicely by Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell), a would-be novelist, and Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), a publishing house assistant who dreams of being an editor.  

     Robert is the latest in a long line of ghostwriters — “spooky helper,” as the Italian-born Maestro says — hired by the publisher to help the great conductor write his memoir.  After Robert quits in frustration, Iris — “Irish” in The Maestro’s pronunciation — arrives to push for the manuscript’s completion or the return of the company’s $50,000 advance, which has already been spent, along with an additional $20,000.

     Realizing he has to finish the book, The Maestro asks “Irish” to help him. Seeing this as a way to fulfill her desire to be an editor, she readily agrees. When The Diva finds out, she wants a memoir of her own, to come out first, and brings Robert back to write it.

     So now two couples are rushing to finish competing books in the living room of the De Angelises’ lush penthouse (gorgeous set by Derek McLane, enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting). And, you guessed it, not getting too far with that but young love is blooming. One of my favorite lines is when Iris says to the shy Robert, it’s so refreshing to meet a man lacking in self-confidence.  When I mentioned that comment to my friend Mary after the show she agreed it was great, adding, “isn’t it a shame you could never use it?”

     But that’s contemporary thinking, so let’s get back to our screwball world. We have two more stock characters and they are hilarious, the joined-at-the-hip butlers played by Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson, who also happen to sing opera and play the Steinway when their employers aren’t around.

     Everyone plays their parts to the hilt, just as they should with a show like this.  Fleming, wearing gorgeous dresses (costumes by Michael Krass), breaks into song from time to time, which is wonderful. She has seen enough divas in her day and she knows just how to satirize one, complete with her little dog, Puccini (Trixie) on her arm.  She has great comic timing and such an expressive face.  I hope she returns often to Broadway.

     Before opening here, Living on Love was seen in Williamstown, MA, but it fits nicely as well on Broadway, where it is scheduled to play until Aug. 2. More than 100 seats are set aside to be sold for $25 at every performance.

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