Renée Fleming Hits a High Note with “Living on Love”

A little knowledge of opera helps, but it’s not key to admiring the frothy and fizzy “Living on Love,” in which soprano Renée Fleming makes her Broadway debut -- you’re apt to enjoy the celebrated diva in this send-up of celebrated divas, even if the in-jokes about Maria Callas pass you by.

Set in a luxurious Manhattan penthouse, “Living on Live” (it’s by “Memphis” writer Joe DiPietro, from an earlier play by Garson Kanin) first introduces us to temperamental maestro Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills), who is under pressure to finish his memoirs.

Vito has alienated every ghostwriter the publishing house has sent, and he’s about to give the heave-ho to the latest, an uptight opera fanboy (Jerry O’Connell). Out of the blue, Vito’s opera-singer wife Raquel (cue Ms. Fleming!) returns early from a tour, just as the publisher sends an ambitious editor (Anna Chlumsky) to retrieve its $50,000 advance from Vito.

In short order, Chlumsky, as Iris Peabody, is somehow working on the maestro’s book, while O’Connell, as Robert Samson, has been pressed into service on a competing memoir for Raquel. For the senior duo, married 30 years, it’s not just a race to the top of the best-seller list—it’s a chance to test their rusty powers of seduction.

Fleming, with her silk caftans and gorgeous arias (she has ample opportunity to break into song, and it gave me goosebumps each time) throws herself into all the diva cliches as she tries to outdo her philandering husband. In an absurd seduction, the rather voluptuous Fleming takes on the role of young seamstress Mimi from “La Boheme” and convinces O’Connell to strip and cover his chest with olive oil. It works.

Sills, of Broadway’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Little Shop…,” is a comic marvel as the out-of-tune conductor who thinks he still has a way with the ladies. Swanning around in his silk pajamas, he talks only of wine, women and song, and it’s no wonder O’Connell couldn’t elicit any factual stories from him -- confronting the maestro, the ghostwriter asks: “I mean, did you really sleep with the entire humming chorus of Madame Butterfly?”

Chlumsky, lately of TV’s “Veep,” is focused on her assignment in a ruthless and grim way, as the straitlaced career girl. O’Connell (“Seminar,” etc.) is entertaining as the spurned ghostwriter (or, “spooky helper,” as the maestro calls him in a thick Italian accent). In the same way the maestro and Raquel will ultimately benefit from acknowledging how meaningful their relationship is, O’Connell and Chlumsky (below) learn from the couple to loosen up a bit.

Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson are crowd-pleasers as the family’s longtime butlers, who make sure neither of the young visitors dare touch the snow globes the maestro and the diva have exchanged over the years as gifts from their travels -- there are so many of the tchotchkes, we just know the maestro and the diva really love one another.

Most of the time, Fleming is boozy and Sills is flamboyant. It’s not until the end of the two-act confection (you won’t be blamed for wishing director Kathleen Marshall had made things just a bit tighter), that they have to do anything bittersweet. When Vito and Raquel finally drop their schtick and connect with each other, it makes for an impressive conclusion, especially considering the abrupt change in tone.

“Living on Love,” through Aug. 2 at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. Tickets: $25-$145. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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