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Broadway Reviews

The Notebook

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 14, 2024

The Notebook. Music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson. Book by Bekah Brunstetter. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Directed by Michael Greif and Schele Williams. Choreography by Katie Spelman. Scenic design by David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis. Costume design by Paloma Young. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair and wig design by Mia Neal. Projection design by Lucy Mackinnon. Orchestrations by John Clancy and Carmel Dean. Co-vocal arrangements by Ingrid Michaelson and Carmel Dean. Music direction Jeffrey Ko. Music coordinator Kimberlee Wertz. Music supervision and arrangements by Carmel Dean.
Cast: Maryann Plunkett, Dorian Harewood, Joy Woods, Ryan Vasquez, Jordan Tyson, John Cardoza, Andréa Burns, Carson Stewart, Yassmin Alers, Alex Benoit, Chase Del Rey, Hillary Fisher, Jerome Harmann-Hardeman, Dorcas Leung, Happy McPartlin, Juliette Ojeda, Kim Onah, Charles E. Wallace, and Charlie Webb.
Theater: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Love at first sight. Love everlasting. 'Til death do us part. That, in a nutshell, is a description of The Notebook, the heartfelt musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' best-selling 1996 novel and the popular 2004 film that covers the same territory. Fans of one or both should be pleased with what is on stage at the Schoenfeld Theatre where it opened tonight in a sea of undiluted romance. But even if you are a newcomer to this story, resistance is quite futile. Save your cynicism for the merchandising; the "Notebook"-branded box of tissues apparently is a huge seller at $5 a pop.

What makes The Notebook work so well on stage, and truthfully it does, is all due to the total commitment of everyone involved to telling its story and remaining completely within the world it creates, not a wink or a nod in sight. You can't say that it's a matter of "amor vincit omnia" (love conquers all) because there is nothing to conquer other than the relentless passage of time to which none of us is immune. There are no Montagues or Capulets to get in the way of the Romeo and Juliet being depicted here, only an interlude of parental interference to get past. From the very start, we know that love will carry the couple through a lifetime together.

But still, you gotta have a gimmick, and this one is a doozy. No spoiler intended here, nor is one intended by Bekah Brunstetter's book for the show. We learn almost immediately that the pair of eternal lovers, Allie and Noah, now in their 70s, are living in a nursing home and that Allie is disappearing into the maw of Alzheimer's disease. She barely knows herself, much less her husband, who spends hours daily reading to her from the titular notebook that contains the story of their lives together. Whatever suspense there is, is owing to the overarching question: will the power of storytelling release Allie from her prison, at least for a little while? (And, really, can there be any doubt?)

As that story unfolds, we meet the pair at three significant junctures in their lives, with three sets of cast members playing them. Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood are Older Allie and Older Noah; Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez portray the couple in their late 20s; and Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza depict them as teenagers. Colorblind casting has been intentionally used throughout in order to emphasize the universality of the story, and the actors are approximately the same age as the characters they portray. And while the story generally adheres to a conventional timeline, any or even all six are frequently onstage together. Yet thanks to some very smart staging, you are unlikely ever to be confused as to which Allie or Noah is in the spotlight at any one time.

Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
We first meet the couple when they encounter each other on a beach near where Allie's family is vacationing in the town where Noah lives. The year is 1967, and amid teenage flirting, casual mention is made of the war in Vietnam and of the intention of Noah's best friend Fin (Carson Stewart) to enlist and possibly take Noah with him. But mostly it is the flirting and the early falling in love that is most important in these scenes, along with the clear disapproval of Allie's parents (Andréa Burns and Charles E. Wallace). Mom decides it best to abruptly end their vacation and return Allie to what she considers a safer, less hormone-triggering environment, and the couple spends their last few hours together before they are separated for what turns out to be a decade. Noah, ever patient, writes her letters for years on end, but he never hears back. Still, you know they will get back together, which is when Middle Allie and Middle Noah take up the reins. From that point on, they are inseparable, and apparently free of the vicissitudes of life or marital conflict until time takes its toll.

With The Notebook, complexity of plotting is not a thing. This is a story based entirely on a foundation of emotion. And to that end, the performances, the music and lyrics provided by Ingrid Michaelson, the gentle choreography by Katie Spelman, and the staging and direction by Michael Greif and Schele Williams work entirely in sync to feed the theme, managing with great aplomb to avoid mawkishness whenever it threatens to make waves or soak everyone in an onstage rainstorm (a bit of overkill, that, though it is impressive.)

Still and all, nothing succeeds like success. The Notebook works because everyone works together to make the magic happen. And if you do wind up needing to wipe your eyes, that's entirely dependent on your personal moments of connection with the story. For me, the tear ducts opened up when Maryann Plunkett as Older Allie sang the line: "It's like I'm in a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream," followed by "Where do we go when we disappear?" Even typing this makes me well up. Someone please pass me the damn "Notebook" tissues.