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‘The Notebook’ Broadway Review: Romantic Saga Takes Another Step In Sentimental Journey

To say The Notebook had a devoted, built-in audience before it sang so much as a note on Broadway would be an understatement this romantic tear-jerker never attempts.

Based on Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 bestseller about a young – then older, then much older – couple who survives a lifetime of tribulations (until they don’t), the musical opening tonight at the Schoenfeld Theatre is the theatrical equivalent of muzak, comforting in its unapologetically manipulative way and unabashed in its disregard for anything approaching the grit of the real world. (The 2004 film adaptation, if it’s known for much today besides nostalgia, is remembered for the early casting of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.)

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The reference to muzak, by the way, isn’t meant to suggest that composer Ingrid Michaelson looks back quite that far for her musical inspirations. She has a lovely way with a melody, even if so many of the songs in Notebook are samey mid-tempo ballads sung directly to the the audience as if anything less obvious might risk one or two folks in the balcony missing some the point: Ally and Noah love each other. Really, really love each other.

Of all the show’s disappointments planted like so many wild flowers ready for plucking, none stings quite so much as Michaelson’s score. Not that it’s bad – it isn’t, far from it – but in more than 2 hours of music you’d be hard-pressed to find two minutes and 17 seconds as melodically lovely or as lyrically clever as the singer-songwriter’s charming 2007 indie pop hit “The Way I Am,” with its sweet pledge of young love “I’ll buy you Rogaine/when you start losing all your/sew on patches/to all you tear.” An early duet between the Younger Ally and Younger Noah – “Carry You Home” – comes close, though, thanks to its lighthearted spirit.

The conceit of the book, movie and now musical is that the couple Ally and Noah are depicted at three crucial moments in their long, fortysomething years more-or-less together. We meet the couple in youth, and then in a nursing home where Noah reads pages of a notebook detailing their life story, hoping against hope that the tale will rekindle memories that Ally’s Alzheimer’s has all but erased. (The aged versions are played by Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood, very nearly worth the price of admission all on their own).

At least in this latest adaptation – which had a successful 2022 run in Chicago – book writer Bekah Brunstetter (who trafficked in the same audience-pleasing sentimentality as writer and producer on NBC’s This Is Us) wastes no time hiding the fact that the old man and the old woman are later-gen versions of the younger versions sharing the stage. Anyone still confused by the concept would be well advised to pay attention to Katie Spelman’s choreography, with its simultaneous gestures for each generation. When, early on, the old man touches his neck, so do Middle man and Younger man. Not exactly subtle, but it does the trick.

The couple first meets as teenagers in a mid-Atlantic coastal town where the moneyed Ally (Jordan Tyson) falls hard (and vice versa) for working-class townie Noah (John Cardoza). Despite the snooty pooh-poohing of Ally’s parents (Andrea Burns, Charles Wallace), the kids while away a few carefree and starry-eyed weeks before the old folks cut the family vacation short and whisk besotted daughter from whence she came.

The action picks up about 10 years after the summertime separation (though the time periods swirl around abnd through one another in performance, with all three generations frequently sharing the stage). Noah spent the first couple of years away at war – Brunstetter has time-jumped the conflict from World War II in the book and movie to Vietnam for the stage, perhaps to avoid any overly musty period details. Neither Paloma Young’s costume design nor the co-direction of Michael Greif and Schele Williams make undue (or any, really) fuss over decade signifiers – no groovy ’60s garb or ’70s lapels in sight. Timelessness seems to be the point, but it’s also kind of joyless drag.

By the time we get to Act II, the Middles get the focus, and while Ryan Vasquez and Joy Woods are in fine, strong voice, they can do little to up the drama tension: Brunstetter’s reluctance to play gotcha waiting games, so welcome early on, backfire when we’re suddenly expected to entertain the notion that Ally’s barely seen fiance could actually keep any of us away from our date with the nursing home. The Middles’ will-they-or-won’t-they is made all the more tedious by a silly, multi-year effort by mommy dearest keep the lovers apart, a duplicitous ploy involving hidden lover letters that would embarrass any stuffy old soap opera matriarch.

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, Jordan Tyson
Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, Jordan Tyson

Played out mostly on a nursing home set by David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis that manages to be both attractive and suitably off-putting (Noah’s renovated antibellum farmhouse hits nostalgic notes without summoning unwelcome ghosts), The Notebook gets to its final pages – or very nearly so – without letting its manipulations become too overbearing (more about that “nearly so” in a moment), yet it never approaches the finer works of nearly everyone involved (director Greif gave us Next To Normal and Dear Evan Hansen). The wonderful Plunkett nails the confusion and panic of dementia from the get-go, meaning she has little place to go. Woods, as Middle Ally, breaks through the musical sameness with the production’s unequivocal showstopper (“My Days”), though her musical theater brassiness seems to have no counterpart in either the character’s younger and older versions.

Joy Woods, Ryan Vasquez
Joy Woods, Ryan Vasquez

Still, whatever its shortcomings, The Notebook goes full-cringe only in its final moments, when, in quick succession, a near-miracle is followed by a shared parting so well-timed an atomic clock would be envious. Older Noah has been telling us time and again that Older Ally will keep her promise to “return” to him if he just keeps reading that journal, a hope that will sound familiar to every family unlucky enough to have dementia visited upon them. Families who have learned the hard way that Alzheimer’s doesn’t play miracle games have every right to take offense at this baloney.

Title: The Notebook
Venue: Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
Director: Michael Greif and Schele Williams
Book: Bekah Brunstetter
Music And Lyrics: Ingrid Michaelson
Cast: Jordan Tyson, Joy Woods, Maryann Plunkett, John Cardoza, Ryan Vasquez, Dorian Harewood, with Andréa Burns, Yassmin Alers, Alex Benoit, Chase Del Rey, Hillary Fisher, Jerome Harmann-Hardeman, Dorcas Leung, Happy McPartlin, Juliette Ojeda, Kim Onah, Carson Stewart, Charles E. Wallace and Charlie Webb.
Running time: 2 hr 10 min (including intermission)

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