‘Living on Love’ Theater Review: Picking Up Opera Where the Marx Brothers Left It Off

With all due respect to Renee Fleming, the real revelation is Douglas Sills, whose divo enters the pantheon of great and completely over-the-top comic creations

“Living on Love,” which opened Monday at the Longacre Theatre in New York, harks back to a Broadway era that probably never existed: A real-life opera diva makes her Broadway debut in a play fashioned around her oversized talent and persona. It sounds like the kind of thing that must have been done all the time in the 1930s and earlier, and yet wasn’t. Call it instant nostalgia, like opening a time capsule planted only yesterday.

Renee Fleming is the opera singer playing an opera singer on the verge of retirement in “Living on Love,” which Joe DiPietro has radically overhauled from Garson Kanin’s 1985 comedy “Peccadillo,” which never made it to Broadway.

It now arrives on Broadway amid a resurgence in contemporary farces and boulevard comedies, which the critics don’t much like but audiences adore. In the case of “Living on Love,” as well as “Fish in the Dark” and “It’s Only a Play,” it’s best to trust the audiences and not the critics, who never appreciate the difficult art of creating a good laugh unless it’s in a play written before 1940 (“You Can’t Take It with You”) or is appropriately obscene (“Hand to God”).

But back to the opera singer. Fleming sings portions of Puccini, as well as Irving Berlin’s “Always,” but what she pulls off here is far more unusual, not to mention riskier, than Ezio Pinza making his Broadway debut in “South Pacific,” which is, after all, a musical.

As expected, Fleming sounds great when she sings. She’s also very funny when she speaks, which is not to be expected after her awkward performance earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera in “The Merry Widow,” under the direction of Broadway’s Susan Stroman. Musical-comedy veteran Kathleen Marshall directs “Living on Love,” and you’d never know it’s her Broadway debut, too, as the director of a play. No small part of Fleming’s success must go to Marshall.

Not that “Living on Love” isn’t full of music. It’s all about an opera singer and her maestro husband, Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills), both of whom are writing their memoirs with the help of a couple of ghost writers (the excellent Jerry O’Connell and Anna Chlumsky), whom the English-challenged Vito calls “spooky helpers.”

Opera music, as well as two singing and piano-playing butlers, bridge the play’s scenes, and while that might sound like as much fun as a lieder recital, Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson deserve to be nominated for a Best Supporting Combo Award along with those four porters in “On the Twentieth Century.”

With all due respect to the diva of the hour, the real revelation of “Living on Love” is Sills, whose divo Vito enters the Broadway pantheon of great, inspired, and completely over the-top comic creations. Imagine a heterosexual, Italian-accented Leonard Bernstein, and you’ve got Vito De Angelis. Plus, Sills has the requisite flair for hair, and needless to say, any mention of Lenny (the play is set in the 1950s) is enough to send him into an operatic conniption.

As the emotionally repressed ghost writers, O’Connell and Chlumsky make up for lost time when they finally kiss. Lipstick has never been smeared to greater comic effect.