Renee Fleming is an illustrious opera star who has sung more than 50 leading roles in the world’s great opera houses. The diva is also a jolly good sport for her enthusiastic send-up of diva-dom in Broadway’s “Living on Love.” Joe DiPietro’s comedy is an airy adaptation of “Peccadillo,” Garson Kanin’s 1985 spoof of a famed soprano and her temperamental husband (call him “Maestro”) played by Douglas Sills, who separately hire ghost writers (a boy for her, a girl for him) to pen their memoirs. They’re a fun couple, and Kathleen Marshall helms this lightweight material with a properly playful touch.
“She sings all the time!” Vito (“Maestro”) De Angelis (Sills, loving his tempestuous character) complains of his wife, the beloved opera star Raquel De Angelis played by the beloved opera star Fleming. Madame always makes her entrances singing, because indeed, Madame does sing all the time — beautifully.
Someone mention Aida? Diva sweeps into the living room to the strains of “The Triumphal March.” A passing reference to “La Boheme”? “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” comes wafting out of the bedroom. And if someone should put a record on the turntable, don’t be surprised to hear Diva singing “Vissi d’Arte” from “Tosca.” “Did I just hear the birds singing?” she playfully asks of her admiring (or weary) audience. “Oh, no — that was me!”
It’s springtime in Manhattan when Diva sweeps into the couple’s white-and-gold penthouse (said to be designer Derek McLane’s homage to Iris Apfel’s living room) fresh from her 1957 European tour. A bit too fresh, as it turns out. La Scala cancelled because of disappointing advance sales, and other engagements were cut short because of half-empty houses. It’s probably time for her to write her memoirs, she thinks, while she still has fans to buy it — and before her voice drops to (horrors!) a mezzo register.
But Maestro got there first with the idea, and while Diva was on tour he hired Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell), a promising young author and a besotted fan, to ghostwrite his own memoirs. So far, the enterprise has been a washout. Samson can’t get the Maestro to change out of his dressing gown and sit down for their sessions, and whenever he does, all this Latin lover wants to talk about is his prowess with women.
His boasts all come out like this: “Before I-a leave Cleveland, I make-a the love to the entire humming chorus of-a “Madama Butterfly.” Which is unfortunate, since that 19th-century burlesque house version of an Italian accent doesn’t date well. But Sills, who made his Broadway debut playing another larger-than-life legend in “The Scarlett Pimpernel,” has Maestro’s bravura moves down cold. With his unkempt silver mane and bombastic gestures, his impression of Maestro’s arch rival, Leonard Bernstein, is a hoot.
Fleming’s fans should be thrilled to hear that their idol is a natural, completely at her ease in the most ridiculously farcical situations and so personable she confirms her reputation as “The People’s Diva.” She also partners well, joining Sills in those intimate moments when Diva and Maestro tone down the theatrics and, as confidantes, quietly discuss their valid concerns as aging superstars anticipating a time when they will become unloved and irrelevant.
But working for such colossal egos can cost a man his sanity, and in a burst of professional bravado, Samson quits his maddening job as Maestro’s ghost. He’s quickly replaced by Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), a perky junior editor dispatched from Little, Brown to return with some finished chapters of this long-overdue literary effort. Demure little Iris gives it her best try (and Chlumsky is breezily charming as this wide-eyed innocent), but she’s no match for Maestro, who seduces her with his irresistible “Bolero,” enticing her to quit her job and become his seventh — or is it eighth?– ghostwriter.
Bad luck for him, his wife walks in on an extremely cozy work session, and in a fit of pique, hires Samson back to pen her memoirs. Marshall applies the classic drills of farce to orchestrate this clash of narcissistic egos, and Fleming and Sills respond with gusto to her comic cues. But the show doesn’t play as amusingly as it should because the young ghostwriters aren’t the perfect match they’re meant to be.
Chlumsky (“You Can’t Take It With You”) knows the drills and executes them with flair. But O’Connell isn’t playing in the same league, and his discomfort repeatedly throws off the comic rhythms — although he made a witty and highly commendable save over a misplaced prop in a late preview performance.
Speaking of props, these are cunningly handled by “i ragazzi,” as Maestro refers to them, a perfectly matched pair of butlers who function rather like a vaudeville team. Bruce (Blake Hammond) and Eric (Scott Robertson) initially present themselves as adorable guard dogs. But in the fullness of time, they advance to more elaborate roles as accomplished performers, singing the Toreador Song from “Carmen” or accompanying themselves at the piano on “Making Whoopee.” It’s all very charming until the ill-advised saccharine payoff which has half the audience cheering and the other half wondering how long we have to put up with yet more shameless pandering to the social zeitgeist.