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Outside of the Met or La Scala, portrayals of the opera world are seldom understated. In Living on Love, a kind of new chestnut that opened tonight at the Longacre Theatre, the beloved soprano Renée Fleming plays an over-the-top diva with the subtlety of Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera, Doc?” But her good humor is infectious even when the show proves more diversionary than delirious.
Joe DiPietro (Nice Work If You Can Get It) has taken the bones of a late play by Garson Kanin (Born Yesterday), Peccadillo, and given it a fresh gloss of coloratura. The show is now set in the late 1950s, but still features a prickly couple of classical music artists whose long-term marriage is as precarious as their decades-long careers. Douglas Sills’ Vito is an Italian conductor and aging lothario with a spikey white shock of Johnny Rotten hair, absurd levels of vanity, and an almost allergic reaction to the name of his more-successful rival, Leonard Bernstein. Meanwhile, Fleming’s Raquel is an equally self-centered soprano forced to cut short a concert tour due to flagging ticket sales; she also has an aversion to any mention of Maria Callas (or being downgraded to a mezzo).
They are made for each other, of course, but they don’t always realize it. Their professional rivalry can cloud their judgment, as can the romantic wanderlust (and just plain lust) that occurs over the course of any established marriage. In this case, they’re both drawn to pretty young literary types ghost-writing their respective memoirs. Iris Peabody (Veep‘s Anna Chlumsky, who is oddly flat here) is the Queens-bred publishing assistant tapped to help Vito after he’s fired seven previous writers; Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell, putting the buff in buffoon) is the opera-loving budding novelist — and Vito Ghost No. 7 — whom Raquel hires after catching Vito get a little too amorous with his amanuensis while demonstrating how to conduct “Bolero.”
There are chuckles throughout, as when Raquel relieves Robert of his shirt so he can play an oiled-up Rodrigo to her Carmen (“What do I do?” he asks. “Nothing,” she replies. “No one is looking at you, dear, you’re the tenor.”) Or whenever Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson appear as Vito and Raquel’s formally clad mirror-image manservants. But the script also includes several anachronistic clunkers (“Oh, Mama likes that!” Iris says after Vito plies her with a second glass of gin) and a plot that never bursts into the outright farce we’re led to expect. Kathleen Marshall’s staging is merely serviceable, with awkward blocking in some scenes on Derek McLane’s well-appointed set. But in her Broadway debut, Fleming shows a fine comedic flair, and her occasional bursts into song are a delight. Ultimately, though, your gut may be tickled but remain unbusted. Grade: B