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Living on Love in Williamstown

Theatre Debut for Diva Renée Fleming

By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 20, 2014

Living on Love
By Joe DiPietro
Based on the play Peccadillo by Garson Kanin
Directed by Kathleen Marshall
Scenic design, Derek McLane; Costume design, Michael Krass; Lighting design, Peter Kaczorowski; Sound, Scott Lehrer; Music Coordinator, Rob Fisher; Dialect coach, Deborach Hecht; Hair and wigs, Tom Watson; Stage Manager, Brandon Kahn
Cast: Justin Long (Robert Samson), Blake Hammond (Bruce), Douglas Sills (Vito De Angelis), Renée Fleming (Raquel De Angelis), Anna Chlumsky (Iris Peabody).
Main Stage
Williamstown Theatre Festival
July 16-26, 2014

Last night marked one of the most anticipated events of the summer, the up close and personal theatrical debut of the leading opera diva of her generation Renée Fleming.

The results are in and we have a winner.

When and if the 55-year-old is motivated she is assured a prolonged career on Broadway from drama and comedy to musicals.

Starring in Living on Love at the intimate Williamstown Theatre Festival she was relaxed, radiant, charming, and at times simply hilarious. She has a natural gift for comedy with great timing.

Luring an international super star to Williamstown with a tight rehearsal schedule and short run, artistic director emeritus in her final season, Jenny Gersten, has surrounded her with massive support. A superb cast has been smartly and humorously directed by multiple Tony winner, Kathleen Marshall.

She has let her actors off the leash with wonderful synergy and invention.

More or less playing herself as Diva (Raquel DeAngelis) Fleming is at times arch and self absorbed and yet surprisingly earthy, natural and unassuming.

This plays against and balanced with the over the top at times outlandishly cartoonish Maestro, as in call me Maestro, played every so broadly by the tall, dark and handsome, rakish, womanizing Douglas Sills as the conductor Vito DeAngelis.

If he overacts and hams it up, while she is surprisingly understated, through the direction of Marshall they are credible as a couple and perfectly matched.

He has received a $50,000 advance on an autobiography. Actually they have spent it and some $20,000 more on credit. After several months and as many ghost writers there are but four pages of manuscript. Rising for breakfast mid afternoon his work habits are abysmal.

She has returned home from yet another grueling tour. The next one is headed for East Podunk and Palookaville, AKA, Ft. Lauderdale. For a Little Brown advance of $50,000 and one dollar she has decided to publish her own autobiography. Because of the overlap the first to be published will sell while the second will be an instant remainder.

It is just one aspect of their tension and rivalry after centuries of a celerbity marriage.

It took some time, however, for the chemistry, which worked like a charm in the second act, to click in.

In one of the most revealing and hilarious lines of the night during a heated exchange she states that after decades in America he still sounds like “Chico Marx.”

Indeed there is a bit of that Mark Brothers absurdity and pratfall comedy in the Joe DiPietro rewrite of Garson Kanin’s last produced play which died on the way to Broadway.

His play Peccadillo has been given a complete overhaul, enough to earn a new writing credit, but curious and avoidable decisions were made.

If given such a free hand by the Kanin estate then why set the play in the nowheresville of 1957? Other than Elvis (milked for a joke) not much is going on in the era of the Cold War. That translates as an upscale but drab as hell upper west side now rent controlled apartment. The décor by Derek McLane with terrible prop shop furnishing is just short of god awful. There are distracting and hideous wall panels of florid paper and too many sconces. That may have more to do with an unfortunate period than atrocious design and a putrid color scheme.

It makes for a few gags. For a romantic dinner the terrific, scene stealing opera singing butlers, Blake Hammmond (Bruce) and Scott Robertson (Eric), have over decorated with flowers and candelabras.

The live in ghost writers from Little Brown (Justin Long) as Robert Samson and the mousey assistant editor Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky) have been provided with evening wear. Not knowing what to expect, referring to the tacky trappings, there’s a line about Liberace.

My mother just loved Liberace.

In a curious time warp of the author’s choosing Maestro goes ballistic when Leonard Bernstein is mentioned. It seems he gets a short notice call to San Francisco for a gig because Lenny is headed for Broadway. “That whore” Maestro says of his perceived rival. She cringes when the ingénue compares her to Renata Tebaldi or, good grief, Maria Callas. There are comments about Eleanor Roosevelt. Huh!

Given the general age of the audience those vintage references got their share of laughs. But it would have improved the look and feeling of the comedy to push it up to at least the 1990s. It seems that 1957 was not a great year for fashion. The eager young Iris first appears in an outfit that seems straight out of Seventeen Magazine. The gowns of Michael Krass didn’t flatter Fleming and for most of the play Maestro appeared in silk robes over pajamas. Perhaps they should have cast Hugh Hefner for the role.

Much was made of the Maestro’s mane of white hair. During an interview with Sills I don’t recall it as that abundant. When informed of the imminent unannounced arrival of a beautiful young woman there is inventive physical comedy as Maestro fixes his hair. He tosses it about finally resorting to maple syrup from his brunch as ersatz pomade.

In itself a comic high point of the evening it leads to one of the best lines. In a romantic seduction scene Maestro is behind the young writer moving her arms while conducting to his recording of Bolero. He asks her to imagine herself in the most beautiful place imaginable.

When asked she says it’s “Vermont.” Shocked he asks why. “Because I smell maple syrup” she answers as the audience rolled into the aisles.

Once the comedy cranked up there were a lot of such moments. Some of the best laughs came for the butlers especially when they sang opera.

In a late denouement they revealed that during all of their years of serving the impossible couple they have been closeted lovers. They met as sailors. “In the Navy?” They reply, bringing down the house “No, in Madama Butterfly.”

Leading up to the world premiere of this new incarnation of the play there was speculation as to how much music we would hear. Opera is a part of the sound design of Scott Lehrer and music coordinator Rob Fisher. It helps to know opera to get the jokes particularly the shtick of the butlers.

Now and then Fleming bursts into a snippet of song. The voice is astonishing even though she holds back. To be that close to her would cost hundreds of dollars at the Met. Here we could even see the expression on her mobile and beautiful face. Now a bit matronly she is a stunning beauty.

For once, the standing O at the end of the play was spontaneous and richly deserved. The curtain came down too soon. Then in a spoof of grand opera the cast, holding hands in the manner of the Met, slid out from the curtain. There was applause and a sustained suspenseful pause.

This is the moment when the diva appears to thunderous applause. Instead, Fleming just poked her head out seemingly shocked and surprised. Milking the humor she eventually emerged and camped it up. We loved every minute of the delicious parody.

The cast seemed to be having as much if not more fun than the audience. It was a wonderful and historic evening. After that stunning triumph in Williamstown a similar debut on Broadway now is just a matter of time. Until July 26, however, there’s no time like the present.