For me, Richard Curtis’ 2003 filmLove Actuallyis half “guilty pleasure with twinkles and earned fuzzies” and half “cluttered product-of-its-time with stand-out problematics.” 16 years after its theatrical premiere, Love Actually represents cheesy holiday cheer for some and eye-rolling for those who don’t find romantic comedy their thing. It weaves a loosely threaded web of nine pairs pursuing, maintaining, saving their love—mostly romantic but some platonic—as Christmas creeps around the corner. It boasts a pageant of celebrities: Martine McCutcheon, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Rowan Atkinson, Bill Nighy, Hugh Grant, Billy Bob Thornton, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Lincoln.
Now comes Love Actually? The Unauthorized Musical Parody in the snug space of the Jerry Orbach Theater. It asks, “Is [the movie] a tragedy? Maybe a comedy? Or a guilty pleasure or worth it ever?”
For those who haven’t seen the film, don’t worry – the opening number “Is Love Actually…” exposits the gist: “It’s a montage movie with celebrities [and] rotten tomatoes score of 63.” The snappy book and lyrics are penned by Bob and Tobly McSmith, the pair responsible for musicalized parodies like The Office!, Friends!, and Full House the Musical!. Director Tim Drucker caffinates the madcap direction for a tight 90-minute run, with Basil Winterbottom providing the music and Brooke Engen the choreography.
Kayla Catan, Daniel Hayward, Eric Peters, Joyah Spangler, James Parks, Tony Tillman, Meg Halcovage, and Thanos Skouteris all rotate between the numerous roles. The players mostly go by the movie celebrity names – like Walking Dead Guy or Mr. Bean – because they’re easier to keep tabs on throughout. The Prime Minister of Rom Com, Hugh Grant, has a Meet Cute with his secretary over pastries. Liam Neeson pines for his deceased wife and is left mentoring his stepson on wooing a classmate. He is friends with Emma Thompson how?, who is there with her poshness and she’s married to Alan Rickman… Actually, she’s married to Severus Snape of Harry Potter. Yup, Snape is in this one, because why not? And Billy Bob Thornton is the US President.
The musical checks off the parodic beats, with shout-out to Taken, Sling Blade, and Walking Dead, pointing out that Kiera Knightley was 18-years-old and playing a bride, Freudian gags about romantic attraction, baffling questions again, so how did Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson’s characters became friends?, poking fun at the film’s hokier dialogue, Emma Thompson and Joni Mitchell having a fever-dream duet, a reenactment of the infamous cue-cards scene, and a special appearance by Tiny Tim.
Sometimes, the show grabs too low-hanging fruit, like “Father Issues” slapped onto the secretary’s lecherous motivation to sleep with Severus. The whole exoticism of Colin Firth pining for his Portuguese housecleaner is addressed while not fleshed out and banks too much on gibberish fake-Portuguese.
But the one chief problematic it does not address—and ends up playing woefully straight—is the unchecked power privilege and downplayed slut-shaming of the doe-eyed Prime Minister secretary, who had no means of resisting the presidents’ advances and didn’t even give a signal that she reciprocated the president’s pass. In the movie, the prime minister transports her to another position and wallows in despair, not really to protect her honor but because he feels he had lost her and he never assures his lady love it wasn’t ever her fault why did she have to be the one to apologize for the president’s behavior?. But rather than taking an opportunity to be subversive, the script exacerbates the problem by having Prime Minister fire the secretary then have the Queen of England come in to berate Prime Minister Hugh Grant for firing a romantic lead, yet never referring to the fact Hugh Grant treated his lady love with the nice guy entitlement.
Still, plenty of the humor hits. In the movie, Colin, the self-proclaimed Sex God who patronizingly finds British women unreceptive to his advances, lives his male fever-dream fantasy by flying to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and snags himself a threesome with blondes who love his accent. In case you’re wondering how an asshole gets his assholery rewarded by a threesome in the film, this musical darkens the explanation: the Milwaukee blondes are after his kidney rather than his balls. In addition, the sole black cast member lampshades the prevailing white-centricity of all these tales.
At its best, it’s a played-safe fun frivolity. The most potent love it promotes is two of its heroines developing their self-love and their own peace, the first through playing a plot point straight and the second by offering a revisionary wish-fulfillment. First, Laura Linney has her showstopping number, “Suddenly, Laura Linney”, where she comes to the rescue for her brother just as she did in the film. Second, Emma Thompson launches her power ballad where she affirms she will find a happy ending outside of her marriage. And moments like this make it all worthwhile.
Love Actually? is playing at the Jerry Orbach Theater at The Theater Center, 1627 Broadway through January 14. For more info, see https://www.loveactuallyparody.com/