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Review: The Notebook Keeps Its Romantic Heart Intact in New Ingrid Michaelson Musical

The musical, with a book by Bekah Brunstetter and direction by Michael Greif and Schele Williams, is running at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Older Allie (Maryann Plunkett), Middle Allie (Joy Woods), and Younger Allie (Jordan Tyson) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's world premiere production of The Notebook
(© Liz Lauren)

Plans for a Broadway run of the new musical The Notebook were first announced in 2019, but only now is the pandemic-delayed show receiving its world-premiere tryout at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where Six had its American debut in 2019 a few months ahead of the shut-down. You couldn't dream up two musicals more radically different than the cheeky, feminist glam rocker Six, and "The Notebook," an earnest, deeply romantic tear-jerker. However, The Notebook is every bit as fully formed and successful in its pre-Broadway staging as was Six, and that's saying a lot.

The Notebook musical, based on Nicholas Sparks's 1996 romantic novel, borrows nothing from the 2004 film. Indeed, one of the musical's strengths is how closely Bekah Brunstetter's lean book follows the novel, and how smart and judicious her changes are. Chief among these is updating the show's 50-year timespan from the original 1940s starting point to the late 1960s. In this version, Younger Noah ships off to Vietnam rather than World War II. Other key elements are the same: Noah and Allie fall in love at 17, are united at 27, and spend 45 years together.

The Notebook intertwines two stories. The first is a love story as timeless as "Romeo and Juliet," while the second is very modern story of Alzheimer's-related mental, emotional, and physical decline. Break the stories into individual tropes, and you'll find common elements you've read and seen many times before: lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, disapproving parents, love-conquers-all, emotional withdrawal, loss of memory and recognition, fear and distrust, loneliness and hope. The power, then, isn't in the story but in how it's told. Obviously, the novel had a voice that worked, and so does the musical, due to its emotional and musical integrity and intimate approach.

Authors and creators Brunstetter, Ingrid Michaelson (music and lyrics), Michael Greif and Schele Williams (co-directors), and Kevin McCollum and Kurt Deutsch (producers) have had the guts to choose an intimate approach for all aspects of the show and to stick to it, without concessions to musical-theater conventions. There are no production numbers or dance sequences or lead dancers leads (but seamless musical staging by choreographer Katie Spelman), no subplots or borrowed interest, no injected comedy other than that which occurs naturally (not really a lot, but just enough).

Younger Noah (John Cardoza), Older Noah (John Beasley), and Middle Noah (Ryan Vasquez) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's world premiere production of The Notebook
(© Liz Lauren)

The most obvious element is Michaelson's ever-lilting score of 18 thoroughly pleasant non-rock melodies, which subtly evoke folk and country, blended with close harmony ensemble work. Most songs are in 4/4 time. The gorgeous, lush orchestrations (John Clancy and Carmel Dean) rely primarily on a string quartet, harp, and reeds (clarinet and oboe particularly) with never-overpowering percussion and rhythm support. There are very few big numbers, no traditional "I Wish," eleven o'clock, or rhythm numbers, and most songs are presented without musical buttons to trigger applause. Michaelson's lyrics often shun end-rhyme in favor of internal rhyme. Her lyrics present repeated themes about time, finding your true home and loneliness. Fixing up an old house in Act 1, Noah (Ryan Vasquez) sings, "I build these walls to bring you home, but all they bring me is more alone." Soon after, as counterpoint, Allie (Joy Woods) sings "I'm waiting for you, this time forever." One easily detects the beating heart of Sparks's novel in such lyrics.

The 13-person ensemble cast is lovely, six of whom play Noah and Allie at the three stages of their lives: teens, late-20s and old age. Younger Noah (John Cardoza) and Middle Noah (Vasquez) are tenors, all three Allies (Jordan Tyson, Woods, Maryann Plunkett) are altos. Old Noah and Old Allie seem to have larger roles because they frame the show's start and end, but the Younger team and Middle team have larger singing roles, which they carry off tenderly and passionately.

Scenic designers David Zinn and Brett Banakis offer a two-level unit set with lathe-turned posts and balusters echoing Noah's old mansion, plus some necessary institutional walls which slide on/off for scenes of Old Noah and Old Allie in assisted living units. A large trapezoidal pool takes up most of the forestage. It's somewhat awkward and isn't used that much; I suspect for Broadway it may have a movable cover. Lighting (Ben Stanton) offers pretty, rippling reflections off the water, and 30 vertical lighting bars (each about a yard high) hanging over the stage. They change colors for different Noah/Allie time periods. The appropriate costumes (Paloma Young) chiefly are casualwear, but this isn't a costume show.

I knew how "The Notebook" was going to end, but I teared up anyway when it happened. "The Notebook" weaves a spell that engages our hearts, rather than trying to wow us with production values. It needs a small Broadway theater such as the Music Box, the James Earl Jones, or the American Airlines Theatre to be at its best. Audiences who value more than brass and pizzazz will embrace the heartfelt sincerity of The Notebook.

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