It’s a tradition in our house to watch Love Actually, the movie, once a year close to the holidays. Tissues at the ready, we can recite many of the words by heart including the classic scene in which Rowan Atkinson gift wraps a present (“this is not a bag – this is so much more than a bag”). It’s a mark of the movie’s iconic status that it’s worthy of a spoof and the production will delight any fan of the film. If you have never seen the movie, however, you will probably be mystified, though entertained by the excellent performances and hilarious songs.
Love Actually is a 2003 ensemble film of intertwined stories around the theme of love being “all around” in the lead up to Christmas. It stars a who’s who of British film stars including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightly, and the odd American, notably Laura Linney. It’s the ultimate feel-good film and British to its core. In other words, it’s absolutely ripe for a robust lampoon.
In the cozy Jerry Orbach Theater, the stage is set with a cheesy Christmas card style back drop of London (set design is by Ryan Howell) all red double deckers, black taxis, and Brits wearing Santa hats. Two red doors on either side of the stage provide the entrances for the six actors who gamely play multiple characters in charmingly homemade-looking costumes and an array of extraordinary wigs (by Dustin Cross). The show opens with an anthem asking, “What is love actually?” a good question as when the film is broken down into its parts it really doesn’t amount to much. The show pokes fun at the film’s many absurdities – how Emma Thompson is best friends with a grieving Liam Neeson and also the sister of the prime minister Hugh Grant, how Keira Knightly, at only 18 years old, plays a young bride whose husband’s best friend has an unhealthy obsession for her, how Colin Firth is a washed-up writer who falls in love with his Portuguese cleaning lady, and how Laura Linney’s crush on her co-worker is squashed by her mentally ill brother’s crisis. When summarized in the parodic songs it is a wonder that the film was ever made!
The entire cast excels at mimicry with Eric Peters’ pitch perfect Hugh Grant, “The Prime Minister of RomComs”, and Kayla Catan’s exact rendition of Keira Knightley’s lock jaw delivery. Tony Tillman brings a 2019 perspective to the film, his lines pointing out the few non-white characters in the original and that no one “black finds love in 2003”. He also plays a few roles that are not in the film including Tiny Tim, borrowed from Dickens, and a marvelous TV host called Downtown Abbey. Less successfully, he is the owner of a string of gags around the meme phrase “self burn” that is definitely not contemporary to Love Actually – a film made before memes, smartphones and social media.
Joyah Spangler’s song as Laura Linney points out how oddly out of place she is in the movie. “What am I doing in this film,” she asks. “My part’s so damn small, I’m Laura Linney after all”. The lyrics are consistently entertaining and sharp throughout and there are a host of great visual gags including getting the steering wheel on the correct side for a British car. Spangler also plays Emma Thompson with aplomb and puts right one of the great mysteries of the film – this Emma leaves her wayward and undeserving husband – Alan Rickman here played in his role as Snape in Harry Potter. In the film Thompson stoically keeps calm and carries on. Joni Mitchell is also brought to life here by James Parks in a funny duet with Spangler. The only fail is the Rowan Atkinson gift wrapping scene – it’s a pale imitation of the original. But for fans of the film this show might just be the perfect homage to a an all-time favorite.