Theater Review: Love Actually Live at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

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Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho

During the holiday season, many people end up rewatching Love Actually, Richard Curtis’s 2003 hit romantic comedy that has become a modern Christmas classic. This year, you can level up that tradition by going to see Love Actually Live, a brand new multimedia experience that combines clips from the film with live musical performances, resulting in a charming night out that is a refreshing break from the typical holiday theater fare.

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Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho

Love Actually Live is produced by and staged at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills in partnership with For the Record, an LA-based theater company that has shaped their business model around partially staged performances of popular movie soundtracks. The tone is earnest, lovingly celebrating the source material while adding dimension to the format of a screening with a live orchestra often done at venues like the Hollywood Bowl. Director and adapter Anderson Davis describes this production as an “experiment in genre, something like a film screening with a musical companion piece.” This is, in fact, a good way to put it—large video screens show the movie, almost in its entirety, occasionally editorializing for the sake of time and clarity. For example, there are a few times when two scenes are shown simultaneously and silently on two different screens, helping to expedite the process of telling the ten separate storylines featured in the film. While the scenes play, the actors often move about the stage, sometimes mirroring what is happening in the film, but never speaking the lines. They only open their mouths to sing, which they all do quite impressively.

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Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho

One of the elements that has made Love Actually so beloved is its soundtrack, and nearly all of the songs featured in the live performance are taken directly from the film. Of course, the songs on the soundtrack appeared in the movie in a variety of ways—some are diegetic, such as when Emma Thompson’s character wraps gifts while listening to “River” by Joni Mitchell, and others, like Kelly Clarkson’s “The Trouble With Love,” are used incidentally. One of the benefits of a live performance is that all of these songs can be incorporated into the story versus simply playing in the background as a scene takes place. Here, Sarah (Kelley Jakle) uses Mitchell’s song to reflect after once again choosing family obligations over her own happiness, while Natalie (Carrie Manolakos, whose voice is a revelation), a member of the Prime Minister’s household staff who falls in love with him, belts out Clarkson’s ballad to end the performance’s first act.

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Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho

There are also a couple of memorable musical performances in the film, namely washed-up rock star Billy Mack’s (Rex Smith) cheesy attempt at a hit Christmas single, “Christmas is All Around,” as well as young prodigy Olivia’s (Glory Curda) show-stopping rendition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” at the school Christmas pageant. Unfortunately, it seems Mariah Carey would not allow Love Actually Live to include her song in the production, so it is replaced by Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree.” Considering how iconic this moment is in the movie, the substitution inevitably feels a little anticlimactic, a casualty of trying to adapt something so well-known for the stage.

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Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho

It must be mentioned that in the 15 years since the film was released, certain storylines have not aged well. Multiple romances begin as workplace harassment, and to get into the many reasons it’s problematic to secretly confess your fairly stalker-y love for your best friend’s wife and disguise it as a grand romantic gesture would require another post. But the movie is so popular because of its heartfelt depictions of many different kinds of love stories, both happy and tragic, and those emotions come across loud and clear in Love Actually Live. The best aspect of the performance is the impressive talent level of the cast, who are supported beautifully by a live orchestra. Most of the 17 performers get a chance to shine on a solo, and some even play double duty as multiple characters. Rumer Willis plays both new bride Juliet and scheming secretary Mia, owning her solo moment on Santana’s “Smooth.” Tony Winner Steve Kazee is charming as Jamie, the lonely author who falls for his housekeeper, singing on hits from the movie’s soundtrack such as Dido’s “Here With Me” and The Calling’s “Wherever You Will Go” that will provide an instant flashback to the early 2000s.

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Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho

In addition to the well-known hits, which make Love Actually Live feel like a new twist on the ever-popular jukebox musical format, one original song was written for the production. Titled, of course, “Love Actually Is All Around,” it uses score from the movie, with new lyrics by Audra Mae. The song opens the show and reprises at the very end, but unfortunately the lyrics are a little too saccharine even for the subject matter. “No kinder, greater gift in living than love, actually,” the cast sings, tempting an eye roll even from those who view the numerous unearned grand romantic gestures in the film as charming rather than predatory. The producers would have been better off sticking to the existing songs we all know and love, but considering this entire live experience is a bit of an experiment, it is definitely mostly a success. It is a chance to see a movie in a new way rather than just booting up Netflix for the fifteenth time, and, best of all, an opportunity for some truly talented singers to bring beloved source material to life.

Love Actually Live runs at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through December 31st. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $37 and can be purchased here.

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