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'Living on Love' review: Renée Fleming makes solid debut in opera comedy

Douglas Sills as Vito de Angelis and Renée

Douglas Sills as Vito de Angelis and Renée Fleming as Raquel de Angelis in "Living on Love" at Longacre Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

There is something almost daring about Broadway's inexplicable insistence on throwback fluff-ball comedies this spring. Daring, perversely, but not encouraging.

Into the 1950s time warp comes "Living on Love," another example of a well-crafted triviality without subtext or a thought in its head beyond trying too hard to entertain.

Joe DiPietro's play, set in 1957 and ever-so-loosely based on Garson Kanin's already-nostalgic 1985 "Peccadillo," will be remembered, if at all, as the vehicle for Renée Fleming's altogether honorable Broadway debut. The opera diva plays -- what else? -- an opera diva in career twilight whose long marriage to an equally egomaniacal conductor is romantically challenged by the smitten young ghostwriters of their respective memoirs.

Douglas Sills expertly throws himself into the histrionics as the ridiculous libidinous maestro with the atsa-spicy-meatball Italian accent and an insane head of hair. He refers to himself in the third person as "the Maestro," just as the prima donna calls herself "the Diva."

Fleming, who dots her performance with lustrous fragments from opera's greatest hits, doesn't speak as effortlessly as she sings. But she knows about comic timing and stage presence, self-mocking all the grand-opera caricatures, which aren't really true, even about herself.

After navigating a vocal trill, she gushes, "I just heard a bird sing! No, that was me!"

Kathleen Marshall is better known as a director of such musical comedies as the Gershwin-driven "Nice Work If You Can Get It," which had a book by DiPietro. Not surprisingly, the production, which had its start last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has the broad, exaggerated physicality of a comic musical -- albeit, perhaps, one most comfortable as larky summer theater.

But there is nothing unassuming about Michael Krass' lavish costumes or the deluxe living room of the sprawling prewar penthouse designed by Derek McLane. Jerry O'Connell and Anna Chlumsky are fine as the beleaguered ghostwriters of the recalcitrant musicians' fictionalized memories.

Most amusing of all are Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson as a formal matched pair of Tweedledum and Tweedledee servants, who change props between scenes with musical abandon. Their response to queries on the whereabouts of their tempestuous employers is always "the Diva will be around when the Diva will be around and there's nothing you can do about it." This is much the way I feel about Broadway's return to this creaky comic style.

WHAT "Living on Love"

WHERE Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.

INFO $25-$145; 212-239-6200; livingonlovebroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Well-crafted broad triviality, an honorable debut by Renée Fleming.

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