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The Notebook: The Musical

Nicholas Sparks’ sentimental novel is now more of a love story and less of a tearjerker in this pleasant but unmemorable musical.

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Maryann Plunkett as Older Allie and Dorian Harewood as Older Noah in a scene from “The Notebook: The Musical” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

Nicholas Sparks’ sentimental novel The Notebook was published in 1996 to reader acclaim and then made into an even more popular tearjerker of a film in 2004 starring James Garner, Gena Rowland, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as Noah and Allison at two different ages in their lives. It has now been turned into a Broadway musical simply titled The Notebook: The Musical. While it is now more of a love story and less of a tearjerker, it is still moving and affecting though it has a score with no winners or breakout hits.

While the writers [playwright Bekah Brunstetter (Cake, Public Servant) and singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson (“The Way I Am,” “Girls Chase Boys,” “Winter Song”)] are new to musicals, co-director Michael Greif (with Schele Williams) is a past master of the form having piloted Rent, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens and Dear Evan Hansen to their many awards. Using a small cast of 13, seven of whom play multiple characters, The Notebook presents the 52 years love story by using three sets of casts: Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza play the younger Allie and Noah when they first meet as teenagers, Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez as the middle couple when they meet again after ten years at which time Noah is now a Vietnam veteran and Allie is now engaged to marry lawyer Lon, and Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood who play the older couple now in a nursing home as Allie has developed Alzheimer’s Disease and Noah has chosen to live in the same facility to be near her.

Ryan Vasquez as Middle Noah and Joy Woods as Middle Allie in a scene from “The Notebook: The Musical” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

While the characters age, the use of diversity here has them switch races, so that while one couple has a Black Allie and a white Noah, another has a white Allie and a Black Noah, as well as Allie’s parents being played by an interracial couple. Although it is easy to follow, it is somewhat distracting until one gets used to it. The setting has also been updated from the 1940’s to the 1960’s so that Noah fights in Vietnam now rather than World War II. Brunstetter’s book is faithful to both the novel and the movie, except that while the earlier two versions were recounted by the older Noah reading to his increasingly distracted wife from the notebook that she wrote in chronological order, here there are flashbacks within flashbacks, backtracking some of the events. Brunstetter has also made the ending more explicit than either the book or the film, as well as keeping much of the original sentimentality at bay.

Writing her first Broadway score, Michaelson’s music with its indie-folk-rock feel is lovely. The problem is with her lyrics which never tell us anything we don’t already know but also do not forward the story. Her words are both repetitious and prosaic, not things expressed in the way people normally sing. Lines like the following in the opening number “Time”

“Time, Time, Time,

It never was mine,

Mine, Mine, Mine”

not only are too repetitious but not very poetic. Many lines don’t tell us anything new but retread old ideas as in “Blue Shutters”:

“Living off the things we grow

And growing as we live

Can’t you see it?

It’s just me, that house and you.”

The song “Sadness and Joy” repeats the title words so often that it seems like a lack of imagination. And then it repeats obvious clichés: “It’s light and then it’s dark,” “It’s low and then it’s high, It’s good inside the bad.” Other songs recycle their ideas ad infinitum as in “What Happens”:

“What happens to a person

Who cannot believe what she sees?

I cannot believe what I see

What I see can’t be.”

Other lyrics recycle clichés better left unsaid as in “Don’t You Worry”:

“So don’t you worry

Everything’s alright.”

And then again if we didn’t get it the first time, this is repeated twice more in various ways. This may be appropriate in pop songs where the idea is to show off the voice but in a musical the purpose of lyrics is to convey information or emotion.

John Cardoza as Younger Noah and Jordan Tyson as Younger Allie in a scene from “The Notebook: The Musical” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

The diverse cast each brings their own strengths to their roles keyed to different ages. Joy Woods as Middle Allie has the best singing voice and brings down the house in her second act solo. She also creates a very sophisticated and worldly modern woman. As Middle Noah, Ryan Vasquez has a quiet virility which suits the character who has been a veteran and is now living very much alone in the mansion he has renovated. As Younger Noah, John Cardoza is both gentle and naïve, while Jordan Tyson’s Younger Allie is vivacious and headstrong.

The most well-known veteran actors play the older couple. Dorian Harewood (Streamers, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Jesus Christ Superstar) as the Older Noah attempting to deal with his wife’s illness is patient and understanding, as well as heartbreakingly loving. Maryann Plunkett who began her career in Broadway musicals (Me and My Girl, Sunday in the Park with George) but in recent years has specialized in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Cycle makes Older Allie suitably frustrated and crotchety as she knows she is losing her memory more and more. Andréa Burns is wasted in two roles, Allie’s forbidding Mother and the head Nurse Lori at the nursing home but that is due to the writing, not the actress. Carson Stewart is memorable in an important new role, Johnny, the PT Instructor at the home, as well as Noah’s friend Fin who is killed in Vietnam.

John Cardoza as Younger Noah and Jordan Tyson as Younger Allie (front) ; Ryan Vasquez as Middle Noah and Joy Woods as Middle Allie (middle) and Dorian Harewood as Older Noah and Maryann Plunkett as Older Allie (back) in a scene from “The Notebook: The Musical” at the Gerard Schoenfeld Theatre (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

The unit scenic design by David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis is serviceable for the story’s needs but unattractive. The main set is the hall in front of Older Allie’s room in the nursing home, which disappears to become the porch of Noah’s home when he renovates the house of his dreams. A balcony area is mainly used for the hotel Middle Allie stays at when she visits Noah after their ten year gap. Much more is done by Ben Stanton’s lighting and Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design. All remain vague to the musical’s setting which is described as a coastal town in the Mid-Atlantic, while the novel made it clear that it took place in North Carolina where author Nicholas Sparks lives.  The bland costumes by Paloma Young are unobtrusive which apparently is the intent.

The musical version of The Notebook is pleasant enough and its sentiment quotient is kept low until the end when audible sobbing can be heard in the theater. While the score offers no blockbusters, it is easy to listen to (though not memorable) and the cast put it over well. The concept of having the main characters played by three sets of actors works better than one might expect as they are far enough apart in age. Whether devotees of the book or the movie will be satisfied with the stage show, only they can decide for themselves. However, from the applause at the performance under review whenever the show recreated one of the iconic moments from the film version the audience ate it up.

The Notebook (open run)

Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.notebookmusical.com

Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (991 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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