• two people dancing with a projection on the screen behind them

      Cheyenne Wells as Juliet and Brian McKnight Jr as Peter in Love Actually Is at the Wallis, 2019 (Photo – Rob Latour)

      Loudly happy, seasonally sentimental, and an overwhelming crowd favorite, “Love Actually Live” opened December 1st at the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills to thunderous applause, and a fantastically dressed audience — all of whom were shining with the enthusiasm of pent-up partyers, ecstatic to have somewhere to show off their best threads. Much like the show itself, the crowd felt buoyed by the spirit behind the production — Christmas, romance, and a belting good time.

      By Melanie Hooks

      If you haven’t seen the 2003 film, set in London amid eight different love stories — some happier than others — you can knock out both the musical and the film versions in this one viewing. The film plays on-screen for the dialogue-heavy bits, and the live performers handle the singing. Most songs are from the original soundtrack, and several are nicely appointed as emotional reactions to the action. Karen, the disappointed housewife (originally played by Emma Thompson) handles one of the most poignant moments, and Tomasina Abate’s mellow, lower tones marry to that moment beautifully. Brian McKnight, Jr., as Peter, a new groom, leads the male cast in a delightful doo-wop number that does more than show off his musical chops; it adds a layer of fun and seasonal whimsy to the original.

      Not all elements of the live show mimic the original movie . Most of the female star moments cater to Mariah Carey-style solos, more interested in their singer’s vocal power and short skirts than in the more humble spirit of the story, but there are some charming moments amongst them, notably the short but lively accompaniment to the silly (and great) dance of Prime Minister David (Michael Thomas Grant) for “Jump!” power, It’s a toe-tapping ode to women lusting after men just as openly as the males have been allowed to for centuries.

      The “chubby and charming” Natalie, (Nina Nelson) and the plain simplicity of Aurelia, the Portuguese house cleaner (Gabriela Carrillo), are replaced by the very showgirl norms that those characters supposedly lacked. It’s a little confusing since dialogue still comments on their schlubby appearances, regardless of their onstage glam outfits and heavy makeup, but no one in the audience seemed to mind. The powerhouse Nina Nelson played Natalie to the rafters and received a standing ovation for her efforts.

      Adapted and directed by Anderson Davis of For The Record, a local theatrical company homegrown in the cafes of East L.A., “Love Actually Live” brims with ambition. The company makes good use of The Wallis’s modest Bram Goldsmith Theater space, singing as they move through the audience, bringing the action closer. The rousing finale led by swaggering rocker Billy Mack (Rex Smith), “Christmas is All Around,” might be the merriest moment of the entire night — a fitting end for the feel-good show.

      Perhaps because of the limited size of the auditorium, energy surges easily from the stage and live orchestra to the very back row. You needn’t worry about missing a line or moment. In fact, a touch of cutting down the orchestra’s volume here and there would allow the cast’s best moments to shine, such as the reprise of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” as a moment of longing, shared by characters Daniel (Anthony Federov), Karen (Abate), Sarah (Emily Lopez) and Jamie (Aaron Lazar).

      What remains most engaging about the production are these smaller moments: stepdad Daniel and son Sam (Conor Jack Kowalski), on the couch, quietly mourning their lost wife/mother; nude film stand-ins John (Tom Zmuda) and Judy (Jordan Martone), played as clarinet and violin players respectively — and quite effectively; the sweet kiss in the street of doomed-to-be-silent love of Mark (James Byous) for his mate’s bride Juliet (Cheyenne Wells). These are the buttons that feel like love, actually.

      > Inspired by the Universal Pictures/Working Title motion picture written by Richard Curtis, Presented by special arrangement with Universal Theatrical Group.

      > Adapted By/Director Anderson Davis
      Musical supervision and arrangements by Jesse Vargas, vocal design by Tony Award nominee AnnMarie Milazzo, choreography by Sumie Maeda, scenic design by Emmy Award winner Matthew Steinbrenner, lighting design by Michael Berger, sound design by Ben Soldate, costume design by Steve Mazurek, video design by Aaron Rhyne, casting by Stewart/Whitley and co-produced by Shane Scheel/For the Record and the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts.

      > Until December 31, 2021
      Approx. 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
      Ticket prices: $39- $125 (subject to change).

      The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
      9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.

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