How do you stage a movie? The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and For The Record challenged that question with their production of “Love Actually Live.” The concept sounds disconnected and dysfunctional, but it was made possible through the precision and specificity of every artist involved in the production. They combined theatre, film, and music in a beautifully executed experiment.
The set included three screens: one at the top of the set and two smaller screens that descended onto the stage and slid into the wings. Scenic designer Matt Steinbrenner masked the screens in architecture similar to the buildings shown in the film. These screens also housed part of the orchestra behind the stage while the actors performed in front. Steinbrenner’s set is smart and astonishing in its ability to support both the spectacle of the experiment and the heart of the story.
“Love Actually Live” follows the same plot as the film. It showcases eight distant, yet connected vignettes of love stories in London, England. Each story leads up to Christmas.
The production opened as if it were a screening. The film began on a large screen at the highest point of the set. Then it all collapsed. Actors burst from the sides of the stage and the screens began to move into a musical number. The show resembled a jukebox musical, but the film that accompanied the popular music let the spectacle and song live in the story.
"Love Actually Live" follows the same plot as the film. It showcases eight distant, yet connected vignettes of love stories in London, England. Each story leads up to Christmas.
The first vignette revolves around Juliet (Rumer Willis) and Peter’s (B.Slade) wedding. They go behind and in between screens. As one character entered the film, the duplicate character on stage would go behind the screen to depict that the story moved from theatre to film, and vice versa. It was a dance of its own that had to be well executed.
“Everything was so precise that you can’t be off by even a couple seconds,” Carrie Manolakos (who played Natalie) said. “Whether it’s the screens or the timing of the movie or our entrances and exits or our music – everything is so so specific that getting that timing right took a bit of time. But once we got it, it really felt like we were in the flow.”
The production felt like more of a spectacle that relied on virtuosity to capture the audience’s attention during the first couple of musical numbers, but soon the production showed it was more than just an exhibition with its most unsuspecting number: “Wherever You Will Go,” originally by The Calling. It gave the show heart and marked the beginning of the show’s humanity.
Daniel (Zak Resnick) performed “Wherever You Will Go” on the bare stage. A simple backdrop was projected on the screens and he stood, alone, mourning the recent death of his wife. As the projections flip midway through, all attention is on Resnick as he turns the popular song into a heart-wrenching call to his dead wife.
Jesse Vargas, the Music Supervision, Arrangements, and Orchestrations Director, culminated a diverse array of music styles in the musical numbers. Peter (B. Slade) and Juliet (Rumer Willis) brought R&B with their rendition of “Take Me As I Am” while Natalie (the aforementioned Carrie Manolakos) and various other characters bought folk and pop with their rendition of “River,” originally by Joni Mitchell.
The powerhouse singers and actors on stage were accompanied by musicians taking the spots of other characters in the movie. While one scene happened on screen, they took the stage to reenact it in a more contextual way with their instruments. They would riff off the orchestra with their violin or trumpet, voicing what their character would say with song. It was another voice of its own that was witty and adorable as they interacted with each other.
The performances on stage were meant to contextualize the screening in a way that was more inclusive than separate. “Jump (For My Love)” did so by revealing the excitement and anxiety of the character on screen. The same character on stage interacted with those performing the song and all forms of performing arts combined for an experience that went inside and out of the scene.
“Love Actually Live” does well at filling in the blanks. In the film, there is a scene when the prime minister walks out of his office as Natalie walks into the room with the president. While the film does not show what led to the president getting closer to her, the performers on stage show what happens in the room. It shows how the president coerced and sexually harassed Natalie, seconds before David (Sean Yves Lessard) walks back in. When it flips back to the screen, David’s comment on how the president is taking what he wants while ignoring others’ concerns has a larger, more political weight to it.
The direction by Anderson Davis brought the film into our current political climate as much as he could. The movie’s original casting limits the diversity one can achieve in casting the production. Despite the struggle to bring more diversity into the love production cast, the overall production was a fun and heartwarming story with a cast with plenty of chemistry. The production invites the audience into a world they could only once view on a television or in a movie theatre. This time, it is immersive.
“From the beginning of this particular show tonight, you can see it starts off with a Universal logo,” B.Slate said. “What theatre production starts off with a movie? From the beginning, the audience knows you’re not here to observe, you’re here to participate.”
“Love Actually Live” is an artistically interdisciplinary feat that captures an audience, beginning to end. It takes the movie beyond what can be seen on screen with its perfect balance of spectacle and heartfelt acting, amplifying the themes of love and family.
"Love Actually Live" runs now through December 31st at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $38. For more information, click here.