Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The Notebook (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novel has been beautifully realized in its latest incarnation as a Broadway musical. The decades long love affair between Noah and Allie -- played by two pairs of actors (Ryan Gosling and Rachel MacAdams, and James Garner and Gene Rowlands, respectively) in the 2004 film version -- are played here by three pairs here, and they have been cast completely across color lines. 

Though, on paper, this might seem a case of diverse casting run amok, the approach absolutely works, thanks to the effectively stylized approach and the sensitive direction of Michael Greif and Schele Williams, not to mention the appeal of the players: John Cardoza and Jordan Tyson as the young lovers, Ryan Vasquez and Joy Woods as their slightly older incarnations; and Dorian Harewood and Maryann Plunkett as the eldest. Vocally and dramatically, all are very fine. (Veteran Harewood replaced John Beasley who created the role in the Fall 2022 Chicago production, but died prior to the Broadway transfer, and he is excellent. )

At least on the basis of the film, the storyline of Bekah Brunstetter’s book is faithful to the original, some streamlining and minor changes notwithstanding. As before, upper crust Allie falls for lumberyard worker Noah under the wary eye of her parents, especially her mother. Though their romance is almost derailed, Allie almost marries the more patrician Lon, obstacles are eventually overcome. By the end however, Allie is in a nursing home with severe dementia, and Noah, not recognized by Allie, reads to her from the diary she had written before she lost her memory, so their story would not be forgotten. Plunkett’s heart wrenching portrayal is extraordinarily good. 

The film kept the revelation that the older couple were, in fact, Allie and Noah, until midway through. But here, given the structure of the adaptation, the connection is revealed right from the start. 

Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson’s very agreeable score seems thoroughly apt at all times, except perhaps for Joy Woods’ big number, “My Days,” which earns a rousing hand, but seems a little out-of-place for character. Overall,  I can’t say, after a first hearing, I walked out humming any of the tunes. But Music Supervisor Carmel Dean, who collaborated on the arrangements with Michaelson, maintains a pleasing sound palette throughout..

Besides the excellent players already mentioned, there’s fine work from AndrĂ©a Burns as Alley’s disapproving mother, Charles E. Wallace as her father, Chase Del Rey as her temporary fiance, and Carson Stewart as an empathetic young physical therapist in the nursing home. And except for the actors playing Noah and Allie, everyone inhabits multiple roles. 

David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis’s versatile set design -- lighted by Ben Stanton -- begins austerely in the nursing home but seamlessly morphs into the various flashback settings, complemented by Lucy Mackinnon’s projections. Paloma Young’s costumes capture the changing fashions. Nevin Steinberg’s sound design is nicely balanced and not overpowering as in so many shows.

Branded tissues are for sale at the theater, and indeed sniffles abound towards the end, but somehow “The Notebook” avoids the maudlin. There’s genuine sentiment here, and the end-of-life issues that come to so many are accurately and honestly dramatized, particularly in the seasoned hands of Plunkett and Harewood. 

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street; NotebookMusical.com)

Photo by Julieta Cervantes: John Cardoza, Dorian Harewood, and Ryan Vasquez, with Maryann Plunkett

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