by Bart Greenberg . . .
When I was in college (Penn State) back in the dark ages (a date I don’t care to publish), each year there would be a spring festival on a large open space on campus that served as a parking lot in the fall for football games. As part of the weekend, the fraternities and sororities put on elaborate skits, fully costumed and with detailed sets, mostly satires of then popular movies and television shows, complete with music, gags (often off-color), drag and celebrity impersonations. These were brought back to mind while watching Love Actually?: An Unauthorized Parody. Certainly, this production features a far more sophisticated production and far more impressive acting, but the anything-for-a-laugh if-you-don’t-like-this-gag-there-will-be-another-in-a-minute approach is very much alive.
For those who have manage to avoid it, Love Actually is a 2003 film that quickly captured a huge and devoted audience with its rom-com on steroids exploration of heterosexual romance up and down the class system via 10 separate stories that don’t fit together until the slightly surprising wind up ending. The mostly English cast play everyone from the new Prime Minister to a couple of horny cab drivers and two earnest young people who are body stand ins for movie sex scenes. Among the performers were Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney (the token American), Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley and Bill Nighy, with a great number of others wandering through.
Bob and Tobly McSmith, who are rather experts at this genre, having already given similar treatment to such iconic programming as Friends, The Office and Saved by the Bell, have a great deal of fun blending the original characters and the actors who portrayed them: Hugh Grant is not only the Prime Minister of England but also “the Prime Minister of Rom-Coms” and Alan Rickman is his straying husband blended with Harry Potter’s Professor Snape to hilarious results. They also manage to involve Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Bean and Dicken’s Tiny Tim into the action. Basil Winterbottom provides the music and orchestration. The songs are tuneful, blending a nice array of genres – there are a lot of songs, most of them brief, and most of them not too memorable but certainly not unpleasant.
What drives this show is the amazingly versatile cast. Six actors playing literally dozens of characters of various ages, nationalities and genders, one after the other and, at times, more than one in the same scene. Of course, Dustin Cross’s always inventive costumes and wigs add a great deal in defining personalities, but it is the actors who inhabit them and create distinct individuals who walk, stand and dance (choreography by Brooke Engen) in specific ways. Watching the show, it was often easy to be unsure of which actor was bringing which role to life at any one moment and fully expecting Liam Neeson and Professor Snape to share a conversation even though both were portrayed by Isaiah Hein.
Hein is only one of the triple threat members of the company. Besides these two major roles, he also delights as Billy Mac, a faded one hit rock star peddling a Christmas version of his tribute to cocaine and American President Billy Bob Thornton (who strongly resembles Bill Clinton). That’s a whole lot of wigs that come and go, sometimes being traded on stage to keep things moving.
Equality adept is Kayla Catan who inhabits an eccentric Keira Knightley as well as Minge, a sexually aggressive secretary, Judy, the female half of the sex stand-in couple, and Emma Thompson’s daughter and Colin Firth’s “sick” wife. Oh, and a guy or two. Joyah Spangler is mama Emma as well as Laura Linney – two very different characters with very different personalities. She especially captures the dry wit of the former while the inhibited spirit of the latter is also carefully delineated. And betrayed hubby Colin is James Park, who shows off a wide range of talent as the other half of the sex surrogates, Mr. Bean, Prime Minister Thatcher and a wide and powerful vocal range as Joni Mitchell.
The “Prime Minister of Rom-Coms” is presented by Eric Peters, who also brings to life a charming awkward Karl –the object of Laura Linney’s heart, a Walking Dead guy and Ms. Dunkin’ Donuts 2003. But his Hugh Grant is the cream of the crop, a true embodiment of the romantic goofiness that has made the star a star. The final, but no less, of the sextet is Tony Tillman who brings a delightful energy, a requisite edginess that undercuts some of the froth and a large amount of musical ability to a whole lot of supporting roles.
Love, Actually? The Unauthorized Parody is not a classic of the musical theater, but it is an entertaining ride for a winter evening. High energy, unrestrainedly silly and remarkable performers can be quite enough.
The Jerry Orbach Theatre is part of the The Theater Center, located at 210 W. 50th St., 3d Floor, New York City. The show runs 90 minutes through Jan. 2 and tickets may be purchased at www.ticket-center.com or at www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, go to www.loveactuallyparody.com.
Photos: Russ Rowland
*Proof of vaccination is required + ID in order to attend performances at the theater. You must also wear a mask throughout the performance and in public spaces in the building.