If you only have eyes for Broadway or Off-Broadway, you'll probably be astonished at the star that was born April 20 at the Longacre Theatre. She arrived fully-formed in an unapologetic piece of fluff called Living on Love, exuding grace and old-school glamour all over the stage, spiking a comic line with the precision of Shecky Greene.
Her name is Renée Fleming, and I'm told she hangs out a lot at the Met and other operatic environs, although she has been known to democratically step down from Olympus and deliver a Top Ten on Letterman or "The Star-Spangled Banner" at stadium events on occasion, and this has apparently given her the courage and stamina to stretch herself to eight performances a week in a Broadway play.
Living on Love, Starring Renée Fleming, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and Cast Party
The play itself is a frenetic fun-poke bordering on farce, concocted by Joe DiPietro from a 1985 Garson Kanin play, Peccadillo, which never got beyond its Palm Beach lift-off with Christopher Plummer, Glynis Johns and Kelly McGillis (reportedly, because La Johns refused to learn the rewrites). Not only did La Fleming do rewrites, she contributed a few quips of her own to the script — notably a line about her imagined horror of turning into a mezzo (that usually brings the house down if it's top-heavy with an opera crowd). "Joe sorta let me be the de facto opera consultant last summer when we tried the play out in Williamstown," she recalled. "We had a lot of conversations about opera and what it's really like. Joe is so collaborative. We could really have an open conversation about the piece. He wanted all the opera language to be correct.
"I have to say I am familiar with the character. She's still alive and well — this type of diva — in myself, and it was really fun to get to play it. It's a caricature, but there's also some real life in it, a lot in the way we feel vulnerable as artists, having to get out there and prove ourselves over and over again. It takes a toll after a while. Also, I think everyone can relate to the long-term relationship in the play: a marriage."
Happily, the play is pitched in what could be her own backyard, a home-sweet-penthouse, designed by Derek McLane to accommodate two supersized egos.
Enter Douglas Sills, who plays her no-less-overstated Italian conductor-hubby. "Doug is so imaginative and incredibly generous," Fleming gushed with sincerity. "He's helped me from Day One with tips and ideas, and he's been fantastic — and flexible, too. In fact, all of my colleagues are extremely flexible. They have the ability to improvise. It's like jazz. You're passing these phrases back and forth to each other, and it's now gaining a momentum. It's starting to feel more like music."
Sills has always been Silly Concentrate when essaying flamboyant theatrical types like Oscar Jaffee and Errol Flynn. Here, he said, "I moved the role so it would be in my wheelhouse. I love everything about this guy, except the smoking and the shouting. I love that he's smart about music and I love that he's sorta genital-oriented. I find him a very sympathetic character because he is aging — and what does aging feel like on someone who's losing their virility?"
The 30-year marital clanging of this diva and divo increases in volume when they dictate their respective fanciful memoirs to young Boswells of the opposite gender. Jerry O'Connell and Anna Chlumsky, both making their second Broadway appearances, pump up the farcical volume before couples pair off in an age-appropriate fashion.
Rounding out the cast are Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson as the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of butlers who, slowly and subtly, work their way into the hearts of the audience. This is the second show in the row at the Longacre where Hammond has served drinks (First Date was the first). "The surprise elements in the play are planted all through the show," Robertson took pride in pointing out.
Kathleen Marshall, whose husband Scott Landis found, nurtured and produced the play, said that the Broadway-debuting Fleming was the proverbial dream to direct. "First of all, she's fiercely intelligent. You can't sing opera in eight languages and not be. She's incredibly thoughtful and very meticulous about her work. She's funny, she's easy, she's the opposite of a diva offstage, so I think it's fun for her to release her energy. It's the first time she has been in charge of her own tempo. When you do an opera, the tempo is dictated by the score and by the conductor. To see her figure out how to hold for a laugh and ride those waves of laughs was kinda brilliant."