Upon being released in November 2003, the film “Love Actually” went on to gross nearly $247 million internationally at the box office. Its soundtrack reached impressive heights as well, charting in the top 40 of the US Billboard 200, with catchy and legendary songs by renowned artists, past and present (e.g., the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Kelly Clarkson). The Richard Curtis-directed holiday film, of course, features an all-star team of actors, weaving several narratives seamlessly; it has been a beneficiary of a mostly positive critical reception though especially a cultish popularity that continues to this day on Netflix and via other media.
In some ways, “Love Actually” upped the ante of the romantic comedy by providing a well-coordinated, feel-good message. With its London setting, and idiosyncratic humor, not to mention charismatic performances by Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and many others, there are as many genuinely awkward and funny moments to be found among the solemn declarations of love. Sure, it can be silly at times, but it rarely feels false. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, in collaboration with For the Record ( previous productions include “For the Record: Scorsese” and “For the Record: Baz Luhrmann”), has capitalized on the indelibility of “Love Actually” with the world premiere of “Love Actually Live,” which plays through December 31st. It’s a stage musical celebration that spotlights its live performers acting and singing alongside their screen counterparts from the movie. It is an eye-catching and glorious juxtaposition that not only recaptures the charm of the 2-D cinematic journey, but uniquely conjures and actualizes the well-known characters in real, exciting, and fully realized form. Director Anderson Davis — who also adapted the movie to incorporate a superb-sounding 15-person orchestra and a cast of expert singers who add several emotional layers to the film’s personae – does a stellar job of putting all the puzzle pieces together.
Just as the movie effortlessly transitions from one character and story arc to another, illuminating like traits and motivations – none of which are more predominant than the desire to love and be loved – the live presentation of “Love Actually Live” is even more impressive for how it plays to the audience as an incredibly precise amalgamation of screen and stage. Matthew Steinbrenner’s scenic design is beautiful and ergonomic, spacing out the show’s musicians in the pit and on opposite sides. In the middle is a dazzling Christmas tree below a rectangular screen to go along with a few others that shift and maneuver into place, as they play scenes of the film, before one of the live performers takes over and vice versa. Aaron Rhyne’s video/projection design is flawless in that, besides just screening the film, it does so by adding London’s lush cityscape, the outside of a flat, or even a halo of traffic lights to complement, for instance, the scene in which Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister and Martine McCutcheon’s Natalie are being driven to the climactic school holiday recital.
The only drawback (if one could even call it that) is that attendees may initially feel they are splitting their emotional investment between the dual representation of the characters. There might be the sense that just as one is getting into a song that the production ends up segueing back to a place in the film, but that concern quickly washes away once it becomes apparent how meticulously, and with impeccable timing, the stage performers have echoed, if not outright made better, the characters whom they not just shadow but accent with their own creative expression.
Assisted by the top-notch musical supervision of Jesse Vargas, crystal-clear vocal and sound designs by AnnMarie Milazzo and Benjamin Soldate, respectively, the immersive musical staging of Sumie Maeda, the sumptuously festive lighting design by Michael Berger, the authentic hair/wig and makeup work of Cassie Russek, and the spot-on costume design of Steve Mazurek, the performers look and sound exquisite.
This sheer professionalism is apparent with the very first number, “Love Actually Is All Around” as the audience is shown the opening credits of family members and loved ones being affectionate at Heathrow Airport. Soon, the performers are highlighted, beginning with Sean Yves Lessard as the likable David, the Prime Minister of Britain, who has a terrific voice to match. The Prime Minister’s love interest is his secretary, Natalie, portrayed by Carrie Manolakos who nearly steals the show with her sensual and soaringly powerful rendition of “Jump [For My Love]” and particularly “The Trouble with Love Is” at the close of Act I.
Zak Resnick (Daniel), a For the Record staple, has an evocatively smooth timbre that resounds, especially when he sings “Wherever You Will Go.” In addition, his character’s son, Sam, who is played by the precocious Cairo McGee, is not to be reckoned with when pouring his heart out to his classmate crush during Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love.”
Tony and Grammy-award winner Steve Kazee is Jamie, who is helplessly in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia (Olivia Kuper Harris). Kazee’s steady and longing tone is perfect, particularly during Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Jesse Carmichael’s “Sweetest Goodbye.” Olivia Kuper Harris’ dulcet voice is both spirited and touching in how it tugs at heartstrings, notably when singing “Songbird” and “Here With Me” with Kazee. The two are also memorable when they share a sweet and poignant vocal quartet with Tomasina Abate’s Karen and Kelley Jakle’s Sarah for Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
Rumer Willis, who made her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in “Chicago,” gives a versatile performance as both Juliet and Mia, the former with her tender vocals during “Take Me As I Am” (with B. Slade, who plays Peter), and the latter with her raw magnetism. The Emmy award-winning Slade, moreover, earns well-deserved hoots and hollers from the crowd with his high-octane version of “White Christmas.”
Platinum recording artist Rex Smith is infectiously energetic as the lighthearted and all-too-honest rock ‘n’ roller Billy Mack, who has a new hit on his hands with “Christmas Is All Around” – which is the gift that keeps on giving throughout the show. Smith has lots of fun on stage, gyrating in his character’s gaudy outfits, and currying much favor from the audience.
Last, but not least, as Mark, Justin Matthew Sargent has a dynamically fine-tuned voice that he shows off while strumming a guitar amid the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” (which also spotlights the ensemble); Doug Kreeger does a nice job of re-kindling Harry’s sensibilities and dilemma with his subordinate, Mia; and Glory Curda (as Joanna) is excellent when singing her solo part of Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree.” What is special about the entire cast is that they shine just as much as collaborators during gratifying company numbers as they do as individuals – which is, indeed, an apropos statement on the tenor of the premise.
Overall, “Love Actually Live” is highly recommended for intriguingly melding the titular film with live high-caliber performers who augment the story in such a way that it has become even more appealing this holiday season. The production is part screening, part live musical, and wholly entertaining from start to finish. Whereas it could’ve easily come across as disjointed and discordant, by the end, it is indisputable that there is a unity to the original characters and their stage representatives that exists harmoniously across time, presented in a connected, exuberant, and heartfelt visual and auditory manner.
For more information about “Love Actually Live” at the Wallis, please visit thewallis.org/love