Reviews

The Notebook: The Musical ***

By: Samuel L. Leiter

March 22, 2024: If a Broadway show’s success could be measured by how many buckets of tears it produced, The Notebook: The Musical, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, would be a shoo-in. As I moved up the aisle at both the intermission and final curtain it was impossible not to notice the many playgoers dabbing at their eyes. (If you forget to bring your own tissues, don’t fret. The show sells packets at a concession stand.) Even my middle-aged daughter fell victim to the unapologetic sentimentality. Asked by friends on Facebook for her response, she wrote: “Not fantastic but I bawled like a baby,” and “Didn’t love it but I cried my eyes out.”

John Cardoza (Younger Noah) and Jordan Tyson (Younger Allie)).

By: Samuel L. Leiter

March 22, 2024: If a Broadway show’s success could be measured by how many buckets of tears it produced, The Notebook: The Musical, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, would be a shoo-in. As I moved up the aisle at both the intermission and final curtain it was impossible not to notice the many playgoers dabbing at their eyes. (If you forget to bring your own tissues, don’t fret. The show sells packets at a concession stand.) Even my middle-aged daughter fell victim to the unapologetic sentimentality. Asked by friends on Facebook for her response, she wrote: “Not fantastic but I bawled like a baby,” and “Didn’t love it but I cried my eyes out.”

The musical’s source, Nicholas Sparks’s bestselling 1996 romantic novel (made into a blockbuster movie in 2004), is probably familiar to every reader and their brother. Bekah Brunstetter’s book, favoring efficiency over nuance (space being needed for the songs), strips away or alters the story in certain details, but for those who never read the book or saw the movie here’s a nutshell summary of what remains:

Jordan Tyson (Younger Allie).

An elderly—if early 70s is elderly—married couple, Noah (the distinguished veteran Dorian Harewood, Streamers) and Alison “Allie” Calhoun (the similarly distinguished Maryann Plunkett, Me and My Girl), reside in a nursing home where Allie, in her own room, has dementia. Noah, hoping  he can revive Allie’s memories of their love and marriage, reads to her from a well-worn notebook in which she recounted the story of their relationship, which began in the 1960s, when she was still in her teens. Flashbacks move us back and forth between the past and present.

Young Allie and Noah fall in love, but their affair ends when Allie’s parents (Andréa Burns and Charles E. Wallace), considering Noah beneath their daughter (he’s a carpenter whose goal is to restore an old house), force the lovers apart. Even worse, Noah goes off to fight in Vietnam. (The timeframe has been moved up from World War II.)

When the couple meet again, after the war, Allie is on the brink of marriage to a lawyer named Lon (Chase Del Ray). She’s concluded that Noah no longer loves her since she never received any letters from him while he was overseas. Allie and Noah nevertheless are drawn together, the reason why he never got the letters is explained, they marry, have a son and grandkids, and, eventually end up together at the nursing home. 

Maryann Plunkett (Older Allie) and DorianHarewood (Older Noah).

The tenacity of their love is demonstrated by Noah’s insistence on reading to her from the notebook, even though Allie no longer recognizes him. Still, it helps that—unlike those in similar situations I could cite—she’s still mobile and, apart from the occasional episode, able to communicate to some degree. Finally, the elderly couple arrive at a heavenly Romeo and Juliet-like conclusion. Kleenex, please!

To tell this hackneyed, half-century-spanning tale of undying love, Brunstetter, despite having eliminated much else, adds a third—middle—couple to the movie’s two, giving us Younger Allie and Noah (Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza) in the late 1960s; Middle Allie and Noah (Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez) in the late 1970s; and Older Allie and Noah in the present. 

The couples—and several other characters—are cast with no regard to racial consistency; for example, while Older Allie and Noah are, respectively, white and African American, that spectrum is reversed for Middle Allie and Noah. Similarly, for the most part, little effort has been made to match the corresponding characters by physical type.

The two hour and 20 minute show moves around in time, sometimes allowing all three couples to perform together simultaneously, their numbers seeking to stir Older Allie’s remembrance of the notebook’s contents. She herself only sings near the very end, when the flame of memory is briefly lit, precipitating the lachrymose denouement.

The Cast of The Notebook.

What is, in essence, for all its schmaltz, a simple straightforward tale of pre- and marital affection, with its occasional bumps and bruises, would not seem to be the stuff of Broadway musicals, a suspicion made palpable by what’s on stage at the Schoenfeld. The show, which had its world premiere at the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in September 2022, has little about it that makes much of an impression in the current musical theatre world, although it’s clear that the creators were attempting to jack it up to Broadway levels of emotional involvement.

Ingrid Michaelson’s music and lyrics have both a folk-indie sound and a standard Broadway one. Sometimes, it seems, songs are introduced more because this is, after all, a musical, even if the motivation to break out singing seems forced. Such, for instance, is the all-too conventional 11 o’clock number, “My Days,” sung with big-voiced power by Middle Allie. The sheer size of the number fits uncomfortably into the show’s dramatic fabric. But a Broadway musical needs to have something belted to the rafters somewhere near the end, so this is it. The Notebook is a show that might have worked well with a small musical ensemble and simple melodies but it too often makes a melodic mountain out of a melodramatic molehill. 

Joy Woods (Middle Allie) and Ryan Vasquez (Middle Noah).

Dorian Harewood manages to remain grounded and authentic as Older Noah, but Maryann Plunkett, one of my favorite character actresses, pushes a bit too hard as the pathetically confused Older Allie. (I’m aware this is an outlier opinion.) Oh, well, it is, after all, a musical where passive behavior is verboten. As for the remaining members of the ensemble, all of whom—apart from the couples—play two or more roles, nice words can be said of everyone, but the material, by and large, offers little opportunity for memorable performances. 

Co-directors Michael Greif (Days of Wine and Roses and Hell’s Kitchen this season alone)and Schiele Williams keep the action moving interestingly on David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis’s set, which inserts locale-defining elements—including a downstage pond—onto a stage dominated by the skeletal framework of the house Noah renovates, with an upper balcony that can rise and fall. And, in case you’re wondering, the movie’s iconic love scene in the rain is more or less replicated in a stormy downpour. 

Ben Stanton lights everything nicely, and Paloma Young’s costumes, though period-vague, are suitably attractive, illuminating the couples by the colors they wear, blue for the Allies, brown for the Noahs. Katie Spelman creates what little choreography there is (I had to check the Playbill to see if there was a choreographer), more rhythmically staged movement than conventional dance. But little on view in The Notebook is unique or notably original, and—regardless of its social values suggesting the story’s universality—the color-blind casting distracts more than it helps.

The Notebook, as I said, made my otherwise unimpressed daughter bawl like a baby and cry her eyes out. I’m afraid I joined her only in being unimpressed.

The Notebook: The Musical ***
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W 45th Street
Photography: Julieta Cervantes