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Living on Love Review: Renee Fleming on Broadway, Singing (Sort Of), Acting (Sort Of)

LivingonLoveReneeFlemingandTrixietop“Living on Love,” which marks opera singer Renee Fleming’s Broadway debut, portraying a temperamental Diva married to an oversexed Maestro, has some of the best-delivered songs on the Great White Way, although there are only a handful of them, mostly snippets. The show is not a musical. It is a very dopey comedy, the sort of dopey comedy you could have watched on the dinner theater circuit in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the 1950s.

That’s not a random choice of time and place: The play credited to Joe DiPietro as his “adaptation” of Garson Kanin’s 1985 “Peccadillo,” is supposed to take place in 1957, and for some reason it has a number of cracks about Fort Lauderdale.

It’s not clear to me why somebody needed to adapt a play that’s only 30 years old, written by the author of such classic screwball as Born Yesterday and Adam’s Rib, but it’s the least of my bafflements.

The bigger mystery: Why does this play have so much in common with the musical It Shoulda Been You – a premise that makes no sense, an overlong plot full of holes, jokes that aren’t funny, a supposed theme of love that tells us nothing about love, a starry cast forced to try too hard, even a gay surprise that smacks of pandering – and yet, I find “Living on Love” so much less annoying? It’s sometimes even…enjoyable.

I asked much the same question about An American in Paris and Gigi – why they are so much alike, and yet I loved An American in Paris. That had some clear-cut answers, most especially: The dancing. Here it might well be the singing…and the singer.

The Diva that Fleming portrays is supposed to be selfish, self-regarding to the point of delusion, and over-the-hill. She wears one elegant outfit after another, and carries around a little Pomeranian named Puccini (portrayed by Trixie; is it a bad omen for this show that this is the same Trixie that played Mr. Woofles in Bullets Over Broadway?) The Diva and the Maestro, her equally self-centered husband (portrayed by Douglas Sills), have decided to write their memoirs to make some money, and perhaps revive their careers. They become locked in a battle of wills and ghost writers. For his memoir, Maestro has hired Iris as a ghost writer. (It’s an indication of the level of the humor in “Living on Love” that Maestro, who has an Italian accent thicker than Chico Marx’s, keeps on saying “spooky helper” instead of ghost writer and calls Iris “Irish” about 30 times.) Iris is a nebbishy if sexy low-level editor at his publishing house (Anna Chlumsky, best-known as the blonde campaign manager in Veep.) The Diva retaliates by hiring the nebbishy if sexy Robert (Jerry O’Connell), who was previously the Maestro’s ghost writer, the seventh one he fired. The Diva and Maestro put the unsubtle make on their respective ghost writers, but Robert and Iris eventually find they have much in common. He has aspirations to be a great writer, she a great editor. He is working on the great American novel, which he’s entitled “The Great American Novel.” (This joke should embarrass LoPietro, who has revealed to the world his ignorance of the novel by Philip Roth entitled “The Great American Novel.”)

Fleming has a couple of funny if obvious bits. Sample:

Diva: So tell me about yourself. But not too much

Robert:Well, I was raised on a farm..

Diva: Too much.

It’s hard to picture her either as nasty or self-absorbed; she seems amiable, a good sport. But decades of talk show culture have conditioned us to accept amiable and good sport as reflecting the essence of American values. Fleming at least never breaks character, the way Johnny Carson routinely did (although it’s hard to say that she ever enters character either.)

And, most pleasing of all, she sings. Effortlessly. Beautifully. Briefly – a couple of bars of “La Boheme” and “Tosca.” The only song she sings in its entirety is Irving Berlin’s “Always”

And she’s not alone. A highlight of “Living on Love” is the odd and persistent appearances of the Maestro and Diva’s two butlers, Bruce and Eric (Blake Hammond, who was one of the best things about First Date, and Scott Robertson, also a Broadway veteran.) They have a shtick I won’t spoil that pays off more than it should. But even better, intermittently, they sing – substantial excerpts from The Barber of Seville, La Boheme, Carmen, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (in French!) They even sit at the piano and do a stomping Makin Whoopee, the 1920’s jazz song made popular by Eddie Cantor. There’s something somehow completely shameless about the insertion of these musical interludes, and something even more entertaining about them, and it suggests what “Living on Love” could have been at its best, and why it’s not the worst show on Broadway.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Living on Love

At The Longacre Theater

By Joe DiPietro, based on the play “Peccadillo” by Garson Kanin; directed by Kathleen Marshall; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Scott Lehrer; wig and hair design by Tom Watson; music consultant, Rob Fisher

Cast: Renée Fleming (Raquel De Angelis), Douglas Sills (Vito De Angelis), Anna Chlumsky (Iris Peabody), Jerry O’Connell (Robert Samson), Blake Hammond (Bruce), Scott Robertson (Eric) and Trixie (Puccini).

Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.

Update April 28: Living on Love, which opened April 20th, received no Tony nominations, and announced it will close May 3.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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