There is very little middle ground when it comes to the movie “Love Actually.” The 2003 Hugh Grant rom-com is as deeply polarizing as canned cranberry sauce.
People either love it as a feel-good, sparkle-pony of a holiday movie or they loathe it because it is more saccharine than, well, saccharine, populated by men behaving like creeps, while utterly wasting the talents of the great Laura Linney. All of this is covered in “Love Actually? The Unauthorized Musical Parody,” now playing at the Apollo Theatre.
“Love Actually?” calls out the movie’s faults, including the dubiously legal maneuvers undertaken by the British prime minister (Hugh Grant) when he fires the staff assistant he’s been flirting with because he thinks the president of the U.S. also flirted with her, and follows up the firing by figuring out where she lives and crashing her family Christmas party. Rude.
Music by Basil Winterbottom and book and lyrics by Bob and Tobly McSmith, “Love Actually? The Unauthorized Musical Parody” eventually gets around to celebrating Christmas and love with a jolly-holiday cheeriness that’s tough to resist. But long before we get to that, it mocks all that is sexist and stupid about the movie. By the light of St. Nicholas, there is plenty of material. The McSmiths attack it with a so-wrong-its-right mix of intelligence and puerile pandering. Both are entertaining in director Tim Drucker’s staging, which is campier than an ugly holiday sweater contest.
What makes the show merry and bright instead of dumb and annoying is the McSmiths’ clever writing, their clearly encyclopedic knowledge of the movie and its actors, and the enthusiasm of no-holds-barred ensemble.
The six cast members play up to 11 roles in the 85-minute production, including the actors in the movie and the characters those actors portrayed. There are nine love stories woven among the sextet, and the pace is appropriately frenetic.
We have Emma Thompson (Ann Delaney) fretting over the necklace her husband didn’t buy her for Christmas. Meanwhile, a teenage Keira Knightley (Amanda Walker) gets married, while Mark, the Best Man who pines for her (Dan Plehal), creepily films her throughout the wedding. There is also, of course, Colin Firth (Jake Elkins), who embarks on an affair with his housekeeper Areola (Walker), who speaks no English.
Christopher Wayland plays Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy and Snape from the “Harry Potter” films, which makes some sense if you know that Alan Rickman played Snape in the Potter franchise and Harry in “Love Actually.” Even if you don’t connect those dots, it’s still mightily amusing.
At the center of the zaniness, of course, is Hugh Grant (Dan Plehal) as the Prime Minister of Rom-Coms (instead of England). Plehal has Grant down, blinking and bumbling his way through the holiday. He’s hampered — or perhaps enhanced — by an atrocious wig, one of countless deployed as the actors switch characters with dizzying speed.
Finally, there’s Peter (Ryan Foreman), who doesn’t get a last name but provides a one-person Greek rom-com chorus providing excellent commentary on the inanity surrounding him, often without saying a word.
Winterbottom’s score serves the show well. It’s forgettable, but it’s fun. There’s a rap about party dip. In “Dark Deeds, Laura Linney’s Lament,” Delaney-as-Linney reproaches the agent who told her to take this part, clearly been inspired by “Spamalot’s” “Diva’s Lament.” There is an entire made-up language in “Language of Love,” which in Walker’s earnest, giddy delivery needs no translation.
On a set dominated by bright red doors and iconic London telephone booths (festive work by Joshua Warner), the cast establishes the various plots and subplots in the opening tune, “A Message of Love, Actually,” which will likely have you laughing out loud before the first chorus is done.
Brooke Engen’s fittingly manic choreography helps sets the scene as the cast explores timeless holiday questions: What is love, actually? Is love actually a comedy? A tragedy? A rom-com of completely inexplicable length and popularity?
Yes, Virginia. It is all of those things.
“Love Actually? The Unauthorized Musical Parody” is also a jolly good time — whatever you think of the movie.