NEW YORK (AP) — What if you produced a play about soccer players and managed to get Pele to be in it? Or convinced Ruth Bader Ginsburg to star in a show set in a courthouse?
That's what the folks at "Living on Love" have pulled off with the madcap comedy about an opera singer, featuring Renee Fleming.
The four time Grammy Award winner is a delight in the show that opened Monday at the Longacre Theatre, able to lovingly goof on her refined world with an insider's grin.
"Please, call me — Diva," she introduces herself.
The gentle play by two-time Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro is based on the play "Peccadillo" by Garson Kanin. DiPietro, who wrote the book of "Memphis" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," has a knack for writing for daffy characters and this play has a half-dozen of them. It feels comforting, like an old black-and-white film, and yet there's a newness here, too.
Set in a Manhattan penthouse in 1957, the play centers on an aging soprano, played by a bejeweled Fleming, and her lothario Italian conductor husband who prefers to go as simply Maestro. A fantastic Douglas Sills plays him like an impish boy beneath an exterior of shocking slicked-back arrogance and heavily accented English.
These two have been together for 30 years and are on the downswing career-wise. Bookings for her are drying up and he is being displaced by Leonard Bernstein. ("Maestro have-a more talent in teeny tiny pinky!" he thunders.)
Their marriage reaches a crisis point when a ghost writer — he calls them "spooky helper" — is sent to facilitate the Maestro's autobiography. But the gloriously nerdy ghostwriter, played by Jerry O'Connell, falls under the Diva's spell, requiring a new nervous ghostwriter (a great Anna Chlumsky, with spunk). The Maestro and Diva now have rival autobiographies cooking and potential new lovers to boot.
One of the play's joys is the performances of two stuffy servants — the exceptional Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson — who sing along to arias as they elegantly change the props between scenes or answer bells perfectly in sync. Their rendition of "Making Whoopee" is hysterical.
The play is directed with comedic aplomb by three-time Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall, more often associated with big musicals. The material could be accelerated and made into a farce, but Marshall never lets the comedic elements upstage the slightly looney characters themselves.
For a play, "Living on Love" is full of music, as Fleming or the servants sing snippets of "Barber of Seville" or "Bolero" or "La Boheme." Having Fleming herself belt out notes — and self-pompously believe her voice has the ability to cure the disabled — is delicious.
The play ends with the only ending possible — although an unexpected detour is taken by the servants. Stick around after the curtain closes on this satisfying, sweet comedy and you'll find a cast that returns to mug, unable to help themselves.