SARASOTA — Let's start with the sensual pleasures of Living on Love, which turns a lavish New York penthouse into a battleground between an aging opera star and her equally egotistical husband, a famous conductor.
The curtain at Asolo Repertory Theatre opens to a winding staircase lined with paintings, a chandelier and candelabras, piano and fireplace, and blood-red walls bathed in a rosy light. The set drew immediate applause from the audience on opening night.
This regional premiere opens with "Maestro" Vito De Angelis (Karl Hamilton) meeting with a ghostwriter, young Robert Samson (Josh James). Maestro sleeps till mid-afternoon, wears silk pajamas all day and sips wine like water.
It is only fitting we have to wait for the diva to arrive. Rebecca Caine plays Raquel De Angelis, a leading lady whose star is starting to fade. She makes the most of every entrance, wearing a different designer outfit each time and carrying a little white dog.
In an act of jealousy that defines their marriage, Raquel hires her own biographer, Iris Peabody (Ally Farzetta). But Robert has really been more fascinated with Raquel all along.
"She's a remarkable woman," he confides to Iris. "She can talk about herself all day."
The ghostwriters switch subjects, heightening the tension between Raquel and Vito. In the meantime, the diva uses any excuse to sing from her favorite operas. Caine, an internationally renowned Canadian soprano, sings snippets of La Boheme and Tosca, among others, and that's worth the price of admission even if the rest of the play was a joke (which it is not).
The characters pair off and contrast neatly (almost too neatly). The maestro winces at the name of Leonard Bernstein, the diva at any mention of Maria Callas. To her earnest biographer (now Robert), she confesses that her audiences have dwindled, the venues from London and Milan to Buffalo and Fort Myers.
At the same time, a romance flourishes between the ghostwriters, as one surely knew it would. Yet look deeper: The young and unfulfilled writers are happier than luminaries in the art world who have been justly rewarded, even overcompensated, for their greatness.
Written by two-time Tony winner Joe DiPietro, the show opened on Broadway in 2015 but closed after mixed reviews and failing to secure any Tony nominations competing against star-driven shows, including Helen Mirren (The Audience) and Larry David (Fish in the Dark). Critics gave respectable marks to Renee Fleming in her Broadway debut, but some complained that the real-life diva of the moment was too good-natured as Raquel to be effective. Others called the play shallow or trifling.
Caine suffered no such difficulty in the Asolo production, hitting just the right notes as a diva hilariously crippled by self-adulation and past glories. Caine can do so much with an eyebrow, with pursed lips or the turn of her head. Hamilton is a lovable Lothario, fighting gamely in a battle of egos he knows he will lose.
Matthew McGee and Roland Rusinek add a delightful touch as servants in matching pink dinner jackets. McGee is at his usual comic best, and Rusinek shows off the pipes that helped him land roles in the New York City opera and dozens more in regional theater.
Eventually, Caine rewards the audience for waiting with a complete song, a rendition of Irving Berlin's Always. Another romantic resolution you saw coming (and one you didn't) tie up the show with a bow. For those looking for burning depth or characters six layers deep, this show is not for you. But if you enjoy good acting, gentle, self-satirizing wit and the best voice you will hear in musical theater for a while, see Living on Love before the end of its run.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.