SARASOTA -- Opera superstar Renee Fleming made her Broadway debut last year in a comedy called "Living on Love." The play is notable pretty much only for that, and for being a phenomenal flop. Despite the presence of its star, it closed after 18 performances.
You can see from the current production from Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre why the show met with such a tepid response in New York. But, thanks to some phenomenal performances (and possibly due to low expectations on the part of audience members who know the play's reputation), the Asolo production ends up being a highly amusing, though slight, romantic comedy.
The script by Joe DiPietro, who won Tony Awards for the book and the score for "Memphis," is old-fashioned to the point of being trite, or at least painfully predictable. It centers around an aging opera star and her pompous husband, a world-class symphony conductor. They don't quite despise each other, but they're bitter people who bicker constantly and resent each other's success.
A young writer has been hired to ghost-write the maestro's biography. But the maestro is uncooperative. He ends up firing the writer, and hiring a young, female writer. (True to the genre, the young woman is supposed to be homely, but when she takes of her glasses and changes her clothes, she's suddenly stunning.) The diva hires the fired young man to write her own biography. The maestro tries to seduce the young woman, the diva tries to seduce the young man, and in the end everything ends up the way it always does in this kind of comedy.
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It's an adaptation of an old Garson Kanin play called "Peccadillo," so some of the old-fashioned quality of the script is forgivable. But DiPietro still revels in tired jokes about the maestro's imperfect English, and an insufferable recurring gag about the diva denying her true age. You've seen these characters before and you know where the story will end up within about 20 minutes.
But interspersed among all the cliches are some really funny lines, and the Asolo cast is so much fun that the show still works.
Except for those insufferable musicians and the two writers, the play's only other characters are two house servants who always appear together. Their presence is the freshest aspect of the script, and the performances by Matthew McGee and Roland Rusinek are hilarious, with just the tiniest sinister twinge underlying their charm. (It's almost impossible to refrain from thinking of Tweedledee and Tweedledum when you're watching their tandem performance.)
The actors in the principal roles are all really funny too, and director Peter Amster lets them have fun with a screwball comedy kind of approach. Karl Hamilton as the maestro, Rebecca Caine as the diva and Josh James and Ally Farzetta as the two young writers all gives broad and well-timed performances, and they're at their best with the considerable physical comedy their roles entail. Even though "Living on Love" is not a musical, it's essential that Caie, McGee and Rusinek all wield attractive and credible operatic voices, and they all do. (And on Thursday, Hamilton handled a very noticeable fake-moustache malfunction with aplomb.)
The highlight of the design work comes courtesy of Robert Perdziola, who created both the set and the costumes. The costumes are fine, but the set -- the interior of the musicians' home -- is gorgeous. The set even drew applause from the Asolo audience as soon as the curtain opened.
Details: Through Feb. 25 (in rotation), Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: Various. Tickets: $24-$84. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.