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Renee Fleming lights up light comedy 'Living on Love' at Williamstown Festival

Renee Fleming and Douglas Sills in a scene from 'Living on Love' at the Williamstown Theater Festival
Renee Fleming and Douglas Sills in a scene from 'Living on Love' at the Williamstown Theater Festival
T. Charles Erickson

'Living on Love' at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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For a new generation, there is at last a chance to encounter a theatrical genre that seemed to have gone the way of the dinosaur. If you act quickly, one can actually catch a so-called “boulevard comedy” at the esteemed Williamstown Theatre Festival under the title “Living on Love,” a boulevard comedy title if there ever was one.

The concept of boulevard comedy has become so rarefied that not even Wikipedia contains a description. Charles Markowitz, who has translated such works into English, describes them as “the comedies and farces about infidelity, mistaken identity, and misguided amours” that among many critics at least are seen as having “no redeeming social value—although audiences have warmed to them for over two hundred years. They simply make people laugh.” In France, home to the especially wide boulevards, Markowitz explains that “they have been the mainstay of the commercial theater for over a century and often when ‘high art’ emptied the playhouses.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) doesn’t need to worry about empty playhouses as long as “Living on Love” is playing. The play marks the theatrical stage debut of the renown opera star Renee Fleming who has chosen for her first role on the boards that of an aging opera star, the internationally famous and deliciously self-centered diva, Raquel DeAngelis. The divine Ms. Fleming is indeed enough of a draw to fill seats but here she is supported by an equally game cast that includes Justin Long from those Apple vs. PC commercials, Anna Chlumsky from the TV series “Veep,” and Broadway leading man Douglas Sills from such musicals as “The Scarlet Pimpernell.”

And, as Markowitz defines, this production, directed with a lot of gusto and charm by Broadway musical veteran Kathleen Marshall, does make people laugh—and laugh and laugh. It doesn’t have a lot on its mind, but it is indeed quite funny. “Living on Love” is based on the play “Peccadillo” by Garson Kanin but has been completely rewritten by the Tony Award winning musical book writer Joe DiPietro, who has also been responsible for writing the comedy “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and the book for “Nice Work If You Can Get It” for director Marshall and the Tony Award winning Best Musical “Memphis.”

DiPietro clearly knows his way around a joke—whether corny or original. With its setting in a penthouse in New York City in the late 1950’s, some of the jokes can be predictable based upon the references and the characters, but for the most part they feel fresh and have the element of surprise essential for a joke to succeed. The comedy centers around the long-married DeAngelises, the aforementioned Raquel, and her husband Vito, a celebrated conductor. Although they started out accompanying each other before their careers took off, their busy global schedules have kept them apart for months at a time so that for all intents and purposes they live separate lives.

Fleming is quite a natural for the comedic stage. She plays the self-consumed diva with aplomb, although it is abundantly clear that she is not satirizing herself, who enjoys a well-respected, warm off-stage reputation. Nor is she necessarily satirizing other specific opera stars. Her diva is not an over the top character, say the way an outraged Maria Callas might be played. Fleming’s Raquel is assured of her talent, has earned her way into her position and is entirely used to the focus being entirely on her. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly—especially when they are not talking about her. DiPietro does the audience and Fleming a great favor by requiring her sing several times over the course of the show, even if it is little snippets from famous arias or even some popular songs of the time. That is the unexpected treat of the show, into which Fleming segues effortlessly.

She smoothly handles her ongoing banter with Sills, who proves to be a delightful foil. Sills is no slouch at playing egotistical artists which he has done several times during his career, and his Vito can be fierce and funny as he tries to outwit and outmatch his wife while maintaining a slightly outsized Italian accent that thickens during his frequent outbursts of temper. There is a hint that Vito has been somewhat of a Lothario during their long separations, or at least imagines himself to be, which Sills also mines for as much humor as he can.

The battle lines between the couple are drawn once Raquel unexpectedly arrives at the penthouse and learns that Vito has hired a ghost writer to pen his memoirs. The writer, Robert Samson, played engagingly and with unexpected physicality by Justin Long, deeply admires the diva, which sets the procrastinating Vito into one of his jealous rages, which prompts the writer to quit. But not for long, since he is subsequently rehired by Raquel to write her story, while Vito hires Samson’s former editor, the career-minded but sweet Iris Peabody of Anna Chlumsky. To further aggravate each other, the DeAngelises engage in elaborate flirtations with their respective writers who are flummoxed at every attempt to keep the projects on track.

Much of the humor comes from the couple’s forays into battle, and especially from Vito’s limitations regarding certain English words and pronunciations. He refers to Chlumsky’s character as “Irish” throughout and tosses any number of insulting names Samson’s way, while referring to a “spooky author” when he means “ghost writer.”

There are also a pair of butlers, Bruce and Eric, played by the slightly corpulent Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson. They are entirely loyal to their employers in a knowingly superior way, warning the newcomers in unison that the diva does what she wants to do and that the maestro does what he wants to do. Their hauteur belies a cute twist that is revealed toward the end of the evening that serves to endear these two characters to the audience and deservedly earn them a great round of applause.

Long and to a greater extent Chlumsky don’t have great opportunities to develop their characters, though Long gets to play any number of exasperated moments as well as lip-sync to one of his beloved diva’s recordings. Chlumsky is mostly all business as the aspiring editor, who while swept up in the Maestro’s charm coyly resists his other advances.

Derek McLane has provided a suitably lavish set for the couple’s penthouse suite, with mixes of pinks and mauves and gorgeous wainscoting that contrasts with the colorful flowers and costume designer Michael Krass’s 50’s formal gowns, tuxedos, night shirts and business suits. One spectacular gown for Fleming, a lovely green with gold accessories, is particularly stunning, as is his costume for Raquel’s scene-stealing small dog, Puccini, the best dressed dog on any stage. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting shows off every nook and cranny of the set to positive appeal and highlights the characters, particularly their hair, which has been designed by Tom Watson, from Sills’ waving grey to Chlumsky’s no-nonsense black bob to Fleming’s imperious blond.

Admittedly the characterizations are not deep, and even an intimate conversation between Fleming and Sills at the end of the show, fails to answer key questions about the couple’s relationship and just how it changed over the years, or even their decision not to have children. But I doubt if many people came to “Living on Love” expecting depth. We came to see how funny the show was, and here it did not disappoint. We came to see how Ms. Fleming would handle a “straight” speaking role, and she acquits herself quite inspiringly. And we came hoping to hear Fleming even hum a few bars for us, but thankfully she does quite a bit more, which made the evening more rewarding.

“Living on Love” plays through July 26. Call the Williamstown Box Office at 413.597.3400 or visit their website at www.wtfestival.org for tickets and additional information.