REVIEW: The Notebook, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Ray Rackham reviews the Broadway musical adaptation of The Notebook, now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Broadway.

The Notebook
John Cardoza (Younger Noah) and Jordan Tyson (Younger Allie). Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The Notebook
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
4 Stars
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The latest movie to Broadway musical offering, Ingrid Michaelson and Bekah Brunstetter’s The Notebook greatly impresses, meticulously breaks hearts, but doesn’t always soar.

You wait all season for a Broadway movie-to-musical adaptation and three come along (almost) at once. With Water for Elephants having just opened and The Outsiders still in previews, the first out the gate was The Notebook; an adaptation that sticks more closely to the 1996 novel, with the occasional (and audience-pleasing) nods to the 2004 (non-musical) movie that deftly secured its place alongside Beaches, Steel Magnolias, and Ghost as the epitome of a “celluloid weepy”. And with Brunstetter’s book and Michaelson’s music, there is indeed a lot to celebrate, and casting six diverse actors to play the main couple adds moments of splendour that most of the time outweigh the sentiment.

The Notebook
The cast of The Notebook. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

As a stand-alone piece of theatre, it works very well. Musicalizing The Notebook achieves the almost impossible in creating a show that remains true to the source material, yet has its own things to say. The creative team have successfully turned the central conceit of the book-to-movie translation on its head. In the movie, we see an epic, decades-long love story (with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams very much in the centre) framed by occasional fragments of their elderly selves’ heartbreakingly dealing with the consequences of dementia. What we see in this musicalization (with growing, yearning and perfectly placed Act One intensity) is a poignant examination of ageing, ailing health, and the universal fear of losing oneself to dementia, portrayed perfectly by Dorian Harewood and Maryann Plunkett (who play the oldest, and most recent Noah and Allie, and this time sit squarely at the centre of the story). This very real, and very important examination is then framed by the fractured memories of their intense and passionate first meetings (represented strikingly by John Cardoza and Jordan Tyson as the youngest Noah and Allie on stage), their inevitable estrangement and ultimate reconciliation (effortlessly portrayed by Ryan Vasquez and Joy Woods). Oh, and the time period where these decades play out has been shifted from the 1940s thru 70s/80s to the 1970 through somewhere near to the present day. The war that separates our young love birds becomes Vietnam, not World War 2 as in the original Nicholas Sparks novel. Our characters therefore meet at the precipice of Civil Rights, with the Golden, post-war years a distant memory. This is an important change, and one that seems unnecessary and perhaps ill-conceived.

Michaelson’s score provides variations on a theme, which works perfectly well, but is a missed opportunity. The time setting has been shifted to very distinct moments in American history, yet the musical signature of the piece has no indication of this at all. The music seems to gravitate toward ‘indie-folk of the 1990s’ territory too often, and whilst some of the lonely guitar riffs and tentative piano phrasing is indeed beautiful, even exquisite, it suffers from being a bit too ‘samey’. Lyrically, Michaelson fares much better (apart from an opening line where the repetitive rhyming of time and mine almost made this reviewer run for the hills). “Blue Shutters” (sung beautifully by John Cardoza as Young Noah) will surely be heard in every graduate showcase from now on, and whilst “If This Is Love” (a beautiful moment for Joy Woods and Jordan Tyson) and “Leave the Light On” (Ryan Vasquez at his vocally best) are clearly destined to be this show’s “She Used to be Mine”, this reviewer was completely floored by “Kiss Me” where the Young Noah and Allie first make love. It’s a perfectly crafted scene in song, and here the show flies beautifully.

The Notebook
Jordan Tyson (Younger Allie) and John Cardoza (Younger Noah). Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Brunstetter’s book is economical when it needs to be (which is a fading artform on the Broadway stage) and really does whisk the audience along the decades with panache, but there are a number of narrative flaws which should have been overcome before Broadway. Firstly, we find our characters in pivotal moments in American cultural history, yet make no reference to it, which begs the question why change the time period and have such an interesting casting dynamic. There is also a tonal shift in Act Two which focuses too greatly on one set of Noah and Allies, the Middle couple, who aren’t developed enough in Act one to be worthy of the shift and focus. It creates an imbalance that the show struggles to overcome by curtain. This isn’t helped by Michael Grief and Shelle Williams’s direction, or Katie Spelman’s choreography; which has the main cast twirling with intensity around each other once too often.

The six different portrayals of Noah and Allie (or three multiplied by two, depending on your arithmetic) is where this show truly shines. Dorian Harwood as Older Noah opens the narrative with seasoned gravitas, and really acts as a central, driving force of the story. John Cardoza and Jordan Tyson are infectiously charming at the younger versions, and Ryan Vasquez and Joy Woods (as the Middle couple) are two of the most assured performers currently gracing the Broadway stage. If this is a show of two acts, the first Act is most definitely Maryann Plunkett’s; who as Older Allie gives one of the most startling and devastating portrayals this reviewer has seen in a Broadway musical in many a year. So perfectly nuanced and uncomfortable is Plunkett’s performance that one not only finds it difficult to keep your eyes off her whenever she is on-stage, but at moments one finds it difficult to breathe! But, herein lies a problem, whenever Plunkett is off-stage (which is for a fair amount of Act Two) the beautiful set-up of the early moments of the show is lost. There are sterling performances from the supporting characters, and a special nod has to be given to Andrea Burns who plays both Allie’s mother in 1967 and 1977 and the Director of Nursing at the care home in 2021, where our couple finally reside (in a touching scene, Older Allie calls her nurse ‘mother’, creating a meta moment that breaks your heart).

The Notebook has all the makings to be a long-running hit. It is a tear-jerking, crowd-pleasing, and delicate story that doesn’t take itself overtly seriously, yet packs a hefty emotional punch (the sounds of sobbing could be heard throughout the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre from approximately 20 minutes in). It is beautifully performed by a superlative company of actors and has some delightful musical moments that delight and enchant. As a whole, though, it doesn’t always soar above the sum of its parts.

The production is playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 W 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Ave)

Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.



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