Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of “Love, Actually” (the movie), but you don’t have to be in order to enjoy the outrageous musical spoof (written by Bob and Tobly McSmith, the folks who brought you such productions as “Friends! The Musical Parody”) that is “Love, Actually?” All you need is some knowledge of some of the film’s iconic moments—which anyone within reach of a screen at some point during the last eighteen years probably has—and a desire to laugh as an incredibly talented cast sends them up.
The biggest question to ask about this type of show—”Spamilton” is probably the most well-known play in this genre—is a simple one: is it funny? In this case, the McSmiths’ extremely clever writing and obvious knowledge of their source material make the answer to that question a resounding yes! The prolific authors, along with songs provided by someone going by the unlikely name Basil Winterbottom, have created a pitch-perfect parody that builds on your memories of the original and (actually) improves some of them; whether or not the movie was your cup of perfect British tea, you will find something here to love…and you will laugh so much that you won’t even be wondering how the writers managed to squeeze all of this into a mere 85 minutes.
I have watched the movie dozens of times since its 2003 debut, and I always watch it as Christmas nears. I’m a total sucker for its central message that “love actually is all around.” I break out into a silly grin just thinking about John and “Just Judy” (the porn film stand-ins) and the most bizarre “meet cute” in the history of romcoms. I feel tears in my eyes at the restaurant scene in which Jaime proposes to Aurelia in just-learned Portuguese…and she accepts in just-learned English. I choke up at the memorial service for Daniel’s wife Joanna, even as I can’t suppress a smile at the goofy Bay City Rollers montage. I share a tear with my namesake Karen as she discovers that her husband has betrayed her, becoming “a classic fool.” I root wholeheartedly for young Sam as he makes his last-minute airport dash to talk to his true love. I laugh each time I think about the Prime Minister dancing down those stairs or calling Margaret Thatcher a “saucy minx,” and then feel all warm inside when he and Natalie finally get together. And that’s not even half of the plotlines or couples featured in this movie, all of which are a joy to spend two hours with.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to denigrate “Love, Actually” for some of its most problematic elements. The outrageous fat-shaming of several characters should have been cut from the script even before it was written down. The US President’s openly sexist character, while it might not seem all that crazy after witnessing the Clinton and Trump eras, still grates. There is a repeated motif of men falling for women they absolutely shouldn’t. (Leave your secretaries/maids/housekeepers, etc. alone, guys!) And then there is the whole plotline between Mark and Juliet—the one culminating in the famous poster boards—which in 2003 played as sort of adorable (at least if you could overlook the fact that he is coveting his best friend’s new wife, yet another case in which the male gaze falls where it doesn’t belong), but today just looks like stalking. The McSmiths help out here too: they either jettison the problems (as with most of the fat jokes) or lean into them to make fun of them; both choices help to defuse the issues.
Still, there are so many things to love in this film, from Rowen Atkinson’s insane “gift-wrapping” to Claudia Schiffer’s brief appearance in a callback to a throwaway line from earlier in the film to the doomed love between Karl and Sarah (and her unforgettable “happy dance” when he comes back to her apartment) to what is still the best wedding surprise moment ever despite all the videos on youtube to Billy Mack and his manager hugging it out at Christmas and deciding to “get drunk and watch porn” to the child Joanna’s amazing rendition of “All I Want For Christmas” (yes, the actress Olivia Olson did her own singing) to the absurd wish-fulfillment fantasy of Colin Frissell’s trip to Milwaukee. I could go on for pages, but you get the drift: with this movie, there is—actually—something fun around every corner.
And there is also something everywhere that can be lampooned, and Love, Actually? has a field day poking fun at the rom-com conventions (rom-comcons?), those iconic moments (“To me, you are perfect”), even the fact that Alan Rickman, after playing the cheating husband here, went on to perhaps his greatest fame as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies. (Honestly, that particular joke plays perfectly the first time, but the show returns to the Snape well a bit too often. Still, Christopher Wayland’s impersonation of Rickman-as-Snape is spot-on.)
The entire cast is spot-on in their re-creations of famous actors doing well-remembered things. Amanda Walker shines in every role she plays, but her Keira Knightley—the characters are referred to as the actors who portrayed them in the movie—is uncanny: that huge, slightly off-center smile, that jutting jawline, that air of performed innocence all are perfect reflections of Knightley’s style. (The diminutive Walker also makes a superb Sam.) Jake Elkins practically channels Colin Firth (with the help of one of Conor Donnelly’s outstanding wigs and some perfectly mimicked characterizations) and does a mean Joni Mitchell in a scene with Ann Delaney playing Emma Thompson (sample Joni lyric: “Tears and clowns and feeling blue/ He bought a necklace but not for you”). The multi-talented Delaney also becomes a brilliant Laura Linney (who wonders, “What am I doing in this film?”) and a truly fun version of the faux-Portuguese-speaking maid character, who here is dubbed “Areola.” Speaking of wigs—wasn’t I, a few moments ago?—Ryan Foreman actually layers them at one point to effect a quick change onstage, and each of his roles is a lot of fun (including a cameo as Tiny Tim). In addition to Snape, Wayland is hilarious as the drug-addled rock has-been Billy Mack, appearing here trying to get one final #1 hit by changing his one earlier #1 hit “I Love Cocaine” to “I Love Christmas.” Finally, Dan Plehal—in a thoroughly impressive demonstration of comic range—manages to be Hugh Grant, “the guy from Walking Dead,” Colin Frissell, and the enigmatic artist Karl.
Director Tim Drucker and choreographer Brooke Engen provide the cast with a wide variety of fun movement patterns, and costume designer Dustin Cross is every bit as good at recreating/parodying clothing as Donnelly is with wigs. And the no-nonsense set design by Matthew Fischer (featuring two red doors and a backdrop framed by a huge red ribbon and bow) both harkens back to the film and provides a constant reminder of the Christmas setting.
Christmas season always provides a bountiful feast of entertaining plays in the Chicago area. “Love, Actually?” (the unauthorized musical parody) is a hilarious and worthy addition to that group. It is playing at the Apollo Theatre through Jan 2. Tickets are available from the Apollo box office (773-935-6100).