Love Actually Live, now playing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through Dec. 31, is an interesting amalgamation of movie and stage production.
The show is produced by the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts and For the Record’s Shane Scheel and Siobhan O’Neill. For the Record has offered up similar takes on the work of Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann, and more, the show uses rotating set pieces to evoke the snowy streets of London at wintertime, while a giant Christmas tree with blinking lights stands center stage. Screens float in and out showcasing scenes from the film, while the cast brings to life many of the songs from Love Actually’s beloved soundtrack. Sometimes a scene simply plays, and other times sequences are mashed up and unfold while the live song provides the score.
Overall, the production is designed to evoke all the emotion and Christmas cheer that the movie does. Some things fall flat: No one should have ever felt compelled to shoehorn the words “love actually” into corny lyrics set to the film’s beautiful score. And pop songs that read as angsty in 2003 have not necessarily aged well. Yet the whole show is such a celebration of love, the holidays, and the movie itself that it’s hard to not fall in love, actually. Here are the five things not to miss in Love Actually Live.
“All You Need Is Love”
The Beatles’ paean to love has a shining moment in Love Actually’s opening when Mark (Andrew Lincoln) surprises Juliet (Keira Knightley) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at their wedding with a live band popping up from the pews and a gospel choir in the rafters. It’s moments like these that make the film such fun to bring to life in a stage setting. This time audiences get to feel like wedding guests, delighted at musicians popping up next to them with flutes, tubas, trumpets, and more. The staging puts you right in the action, and it’s an effervescent burst of joy to find yourself surrounded by musicians bringing this rousing tune to life. With the actors encouraging audience members to clap and sing along, it sends you into the story really feeling the love. Not to mention, Justin Matthew Sargent really nails it on the vocals as Mark, and B. Slade and Rumer Willis are a charming picture of wedded bliss as Peter and Juliet.
There is perhaps nothing so enjoyable as watching Hugh Grant dance his way across hallways and down a flight of stairs to the tune of the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump!” Except maybe this live take on it, which finds Natalie (Carrie Manolakos) singing the song with some stellar girl-group backing as she instructs Jamie (Steve Kazee) and David (Sean Yves Lessard) to make their love known. It’s a rousing, riotous number performed, and the good humor of the moment gets turned up to 100. Bonus points to Lessard for some laugh-inducing booty shaking, helping to bring Grant’s moves to life on stage. It’s impossible not to boogie in your seat to this one.
At times the actors play alongside their filmic counterparts, crossing the stage between screens to indicate action and pantomiming scenes in half-light. Steve Mazurek’s costumes make it a breeze to pluck out who’s who, recreating things like Natalie’s red coat and white hat, Sarah’s floral printed coat, Karen’s red velvet Pavarotti-inspired party garb, and more. Fifteen years on from the film’s debut, things as simple as a beanie or a coat have become essential to its iconography, and Mazurek does a brilliant job of breathing new life into the pieces while making them instantly recognizable to fans. There’s even a fabulous papier-mache Octopus that makes a brief cameo — an inspired and magical bit of design since, after all, “eight is a lot of legs, David.”
Joni Mitchell may have taught Harry’s cold English wife to feel, but she also provided the score to one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film: watching Emma Thompson silently cry in her bedroom while listening to “Both Sides Now” as she realizes her husband might be having an affair. Mitchell gets extra play time here, with Sarah (Kelley Jakle) and others singing “River” wistfully laced through some of the more emotionally fraught moments. “Both Sides Now” gets a big feature in the second act, with Karen (Tomasine Abate), Jamie, Sarah, and Daniel (Zak Resnick) all joining in on the song and closing it on in a heartbreaking round of four-part a cappella harmony. The clarity of the song’s heartbreak and introspection truly sings in that moment, and it’s a pitch-perfect reimagining of an already emotional filmic moment. It’s wonderful to see Kazee in the mix there. His Tony-winning pipes felt a bit underused throughout, but on this and a duet of “Songbird,” audiences were treated to the best of his voice.
Christmas is all around us
This live production doubled down on the Christmas spirit with all the action circling around a Christmas tree. It was admittedly disappointing that Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was replaced with Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree,” though I suspect it was a rights issue. As Joanna, Glory Curda still delivered the big musical moment with spectacular vocals, and Cairo McGee was suitably adorable on drums as lovestruck Sam. There was plenty more Christmas cheer throughout, including a beautiful caroling sequence.
Two moments in particular brought down the house: For one, B. Slade offered up a soulful rendition of “White Christmas” that had the crowd cheering, and it really captured the film’s sense of melancholy amid all the holiday joy.
But Rex Smith, as Billy Mack, stole the show. From his first scene singing “Christmas Is All Around” in the studio, it was clear he was the perfect choice for the role. He brought the proceedings home on a high note with the curtain call’s rendition of the song, complete with Smith making good on Billy Mack’s promise he would sing the song “naked” in a gorgeous red velvet Santa cloak. The screens projected the words encouraging the crowd to sing along, and people were literally dancing in the aisles. The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to here (yes, I know, wrong movie), and this closing moment with Smith’s gleefully louche rock star was the perfect thing to send you out with a song and some love in your heart.