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Love Actually? The Unauthorized Musical Parody

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 29, 2019

Eric Peters, James Parks, and Tony Tillman
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
As even the most casual theatergoer knows, musical adaptations of films are ubiquitous on Broadway. Perhaps less noticeable is the emergence in recent years of movie and television parodies Off-Broadway. Evil Dead, Silence of the Lambs, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Saved by the Bell are just a few examples of spoofs that have received pocket-sized productions. Currently running at the Jerry Orbach Theater, the newest unauthorized musical parody on the block is Love Actually?, which is based on the 2003 film (sans question mark).

In truth, Off-Broadway musical lampoons are not a new phenomenon. Some of the most successful small-budget shows of the 1950s and 1960s took aim at popular films, such as Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald operettas (Little Mary Sunshine), Shirley Temple movies (Curly McDimple), and Busby Berkeley extravaganzas (Dames at Sea). Rather than parodying film genres, however, the more recent entries tend to focus on single, well-known titles. The tone and style of these shows are closer in approach to a Carol Burnett sketch or a Mad Magazine movie parody.

At first glance, Love Actually does not seem to be a prime candidate for spoofing. Though popular, the film has not achieved (as far as I am aware) cult status, nor does it have the nostalgic campy appeal of some sitcoms and notoriously bad movies. Because of its holiday theme, though, it is broadcast ever year at Christmastime, though it may not be a holiday tradition in the vein of, say, It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story.

For the uninitiated, the film is constructed of ten different plotlines, each involving a "love story" in its myriad forms. Set in London, some of the characters include, for instance, the newly installed British prime minister and his awkward but charming assistant, a dutiful housewife who suspects her husband may be cheating on her, a pair of naked body doubles who meet on a film set, and a hapless videographer who is in love with his best friend's wife. One of the movie's pleasures, and there are many, is watching how the stories intersect with each other.

The challenge of adapting the material into a musical is in managing the sheer number of characters needed to complete the collage. This was also no doubt the appeal for bookwriters and lyricists Bob and Tobly McSmith and composer Basil Winterbottom. (The McSmiths, incidentally, have practically created a cottage industry of musical parodies with, to name a few, Friends, The Office, Full House, and Showgirls.) There is a throng of well-known British actors playing all of the characters in the movie, but the onstage show has a cast of six performers in total. In performance, silliness ensues as ensemble members make lightning-quick changes to advance the narrative threads. (Dustin Cross designed the whimsical costumes and wigs.)

Kayla Catan, Daniel Hayward, and Joyah Spangler
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
In this regard, Love Actually?, directed by Tim Drucker and choreographed by Brooke Engen, seems to be indebted to Forbidden Broadway. In addition to the quick costume changes, the actors often parody the actors they are impersonating rather than the characters they are playing. For example, the prime minister (Eric Peters) is referred to as Hugh Grant, who played the part in the movie. This allows for comments about the actor's abundance of roles in rom-coms as well as his real-life sex scandal. Alan Rickman's character (Daniel Hayward) is presented as Professor Snape, whom he played in the Harry Potter films, and Laura Linney (Joyah Spangler) is a fish-out-of-water American actress amid a sea of British celebrities.

Unfortunately, the material is not nearly as strong as the premise. The satire lacks edge and the jokes are not funny enough to sustain ninety minutes of hilarity. The songs are unmemorable, adding little to the evening, and the lyrics are often downright groan worthy. Case in point, the characters playing the body doubles are saddled with the refrain: "And when this film's on TV/ These are the scenes you don't see/ 'Cause we're/ Humpin' humpin' humpin'/ Humpin' humpin' humpin'/ Humpin' humpin' humpin'."

One of the best songs of the show is "Laura Linney's Lament," in which the actress complains about her role in the film. She sings, "My part's so Goddamn small/ I'll get the producers on a call/ I'm Laura Linney after all." That said, the number is either a riff on or rip off of "Diva's Lament," the show-stopping song in Spamalot. As a result, some of the writing comes across as lazy.

The performers make the best of what they have been given, and they each have some very amusing moments. Kayla Catan is hilarious as a wide-eyed and vapid Keira Knightly. As the over-the-hill cocaine-snorting rock star, Hayward perfectly nails Bill Nighy's sinewy mannerisms, and James Parks is delightful as his long-suffering manager. Tony Tillman is very funny in several different roles, especially as a television interviewer and later as a back-up singer.

This is a show that works hard to raise the level of lunacy, but the results are scattershot. It is telling that there is an appearance by Tiny Tim, a refugee from another Christmas show. The question mark seems to suggest Love Actually? does not quite know what it wants to be.

Love Actually? The Unauthorized Musical Parody
Through January 14, 2020
The Jerry Orbach Theater at the Theater Center, 1627 Broadway, New York NY
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