People seem to be divided into two camps: those who adore writer-director Richard Curtis’ 2003 holiday rom-com “Love Actually,” and those who can’t abide the film’s heart-meltingly grand gestures, wryly feel-good vibe and bittersweet, ain’t-love-grand charms (not to mention its pre-#MeToo boss-employee romances).
It’s a divide as wide as the boomer generation’s polarizing debate over Neil Diamond (full disclosure: hearing “Holly Holy” still gives me goosebumps). But this much is true: If you’re a fan of “Love Actually,” you’ll probably feel right at home at “Love Actually Live,” the rousing, affecting production from those clever folks behind the film music-based theatrical series For the Record (“Tarantino,” “Scorsese: American Crime Requiem”), co-produced with the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
“Love Actually Live” is billed as “a multimedia-concert celebration,” but it’s best not to think too deeply about the hybrid’s complex, impressive construction. It’s a bit of a head-hurting puzzle. Simply let this superbly mounted, quasi-jukebox musical wash over you with the warmth and joy of its myriad components.
Adapted and directed by Anderson Davis, who also serves as the artistic director of For the Record, “Live” combines a string of “Love Actually” film clips (shown on stationary and traveling screens) with live performances that either copy or complement the projected scenes. The mix includes stylized, dialogue-free reenactments and terrific renditions (arranged by conductor and musical supervisor Jesse Vargas) of the chart-topping soundtrack’s pop hits, ballads and standards. Told you it was a little complicated.
No matter, it proves a truly immersive experience as the show’s large, genial cast and 15-piece orchestra deftly move us through the movie’s lively crisscross of love stories set in London in the weeks before Christmas.
Meanwhile, a huge, brightly lit Christmas tree stands upstage center amid Matthew Steinbrenner’s elegant, beautifully dimensional, rotating set built to evoke a classic London-architecture mix of stone, brick, stucco and wood. Scenery, projected and physical, comes and goes.
The actor-vocalists each play one or more characters from the film, largely coiffed and costumed to resemble — OK, some more closely than others — their onscreen counterparts. Although it’s a notably attractive and accomplished cast — Rex Smith, Rumer Willis, Steve Kazee (Tony winner for “Once”) and B. Slade are among the bigger names — the inherent need to match these performers with the movie’s recognizable ensemble (including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Keira Knightley) results in a show that’s not as ethnically, or physically, diverse as this kind of large-scale production might otherwise be.
There are many highlights over the course of 30-plus musical numbers, particularly the sexy “Smooth,” with its light-show antics; the deeply moving Joni Mitchell classics “River” and “Both Sides Now”; the happily infectious Pointer Sisters’ hit “Jump (For My Love)” (cue the booty-shaking); the Act One closer, Kelly Clarkson’s torchy “The Trouble With Love Is”; and a gorgeous and bluesy “White Christmas,” led by a soaring B. Slade.
But former teen idol, Top 40 hit maker and Broadway veteran Smith struts away with the show playing aging rock legend Billy Mack (a memorable Bill Nighy in the film). As the flamboyantly cheeky musician, Smith has a ball performing a purposely unctuous, Christmastime version of the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around,” which Billy records in a humorously desperate grab to reclaim his relevance. Kudos go to the 63-year-old Smith for baring a lot more than his soul — and for rocking those gold lamé shorts — in the finale.
It should be said that the omnipresent movie clips, without which there might be no “Love Actually Live,” are a double-edged sword. Although these scenes effectively tie together the live action, they’re so darned absorbing and entertaining that it’s easy to forget about the hard-working performers keeping up onstage.
Still, it’s all part of this holiday gift’s crowd-pleasing efforts, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more For the Record events just like it. “The Big Chill Live,” anyone?
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‘Love Actually Live’
Where: Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions, including New Year’s Eve); ends Dec. 31
Tickets: $35-$125 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 746-4000, TheWallis.org
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