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Second (and Third) Noah: “The Notebook” reviewed

It was only a matter of time before a stage adaptation of The Notebook came to fruition. Based on Nicholas Sparks’ best selling novel, the popular 2004 film starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling is a romantic (if rather schmaltzy) stunner. There is naturally a built-in audience for this musical, clamoring to know if it’s as good as the movie and how does it compare? And for those new to the tear-jerker story of Allie and Noah from opposite sides of the tracks, does it still resonate at all? The answer to that last question is most certainly yes, it does resonate.  I think you’d have to hail from another planet not to feel something for these appealing characters. By the resounding sniffles heard throughout the audience, it most certainly succeeded on that front. And yet, despite some lovely songs and excellent performances, the musical is missing some keynotes.

Unlike the book and film which starts in the 1940’s surrounding World War II, the musical begins in the ’60’s during the Vietnam era. Another difference: the film has two sets of romantic leads depicting Allie and Noah in their youth and old age while the musical has three sets of leads –“Younger”, “Middle” and “Older”.

Both versions span some 60 years as we first meet the young lovers at age 17 and 19. The musical’s set in a coastal Mid-Atlantic town. (The book and film place the action in the South). Allie is spending the summer with her wealthy family in their vacation home before heading off to college. Noah, way down on the social strata, works at a lumberyard. Sparks fly as they fall deeply for one another but Allie’s parents don’t approve and force the couple apart.

The storyline jumps back and forth between the early days and the present  when the protagonists are elderly residents in a nursing home. Older Allie now has dementia and can’t remember anything about her life. Older Noah, hoping to bring her mind back, reads to her from the notebook in which she had earlier written the story of their great love.

The production is directed by Michael Greif and Schele Williams. Together with choreographer Katie Spelman, they inventively arrange the characters in various configurations, reflecting through song and movement the many facets of their relationship. At it’s best, the staging has a mesmerizing effect, echoing the subtle push and pull of lapping waves on the river that the lovers find so inviting.

The directors went with color-blind casting. Each of the three couples is mixed race. That’s a bit of a quandary here only because the story takes place at a time when the region was still plagued by segregation and it requires some suspension of disbelief. But given the superlative performances from this cast, it’s ultimately not a lasting concern.

Younger Allie and Younger Noah (Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza) make a spunky pair. With charming innocence, they sing divinely; and even though their condensed courtship defies reality, their mutual chemistry is awfully convincing.

As the Middle pair, Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez are equally affecting. Their duets are touching; and Woods’ powerful second act solo — “My Days” — proves why she’s destined to be a major Broadway star.

Best of all, the veterans, Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood, are sublime together.  Harewood’s portrayal of Older Noah as a no-nonsense gentleman who knows his days are numbered is extremely moving. His enduring love for Allie shines through with every word spoken and note sung. He’s funny too, earning well-deserved laughs each time he resists being humored. I don’t know if Plunkett’s performance as a woman in the late stages of Alzheimer’s is all that medically accurate but she invests so much humanity in the role, it doesn’t matter.  We’re with her every step of the way. When the fog briefly clears and she plaintively sings “I Know” alongside Harewood, it’s something to cherish, one of those all-time unforgettable moments in the theater.

Ingrid Michaelson’s music and lyrics express the gamut of emotions beautifully. Her opening song, “Time” featuring the cast singing in counterpoint effectively establishes the show’s message of hope and endurance. This is not a score to be hummed. The melodies are not exactly memorable, but each song offers a lyrically soulful extension of the characters’ yearnings and passion. Her group harmonies are especially impressive.

Less impressive is the physical production which doesn’t quite capture the sharp class and social divide that initially separates the two young lovers. Scenic designers David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis’ blandly generic balconied sets fail to illustrate any distinction in the characters’ social standing. And even more bewildering, aside from a downstage trench of water, there’s no sense of the coastal region’s natural beauty which draws the lovers together with an abiding sense of home. Only in a climactic scene featuring a drenching rainstorm do we get a taste of the elements. But it’s too little too late. On the page and screen The Notebook bursts with color. The stage paints it in dull shades of grey. Kudos to Ben Stanton’s creative lighting which helps to fill in the scenic gaps.

In taking on the tough job of adapting the work for the musical, Bekah Brunstetter’s book sticks to the main plot points but there are holes in the storytelling that interrupt the delicate reverie. She does inject welcome humor and adds a physical therapist character, (warmly played by Carson Stewart) who helps to advance exposition. But she also misses pivotal opportunities to play up the drama. It’s most notably lacking in the way that the action abruptly skips ten years and we suddenly find Middle Allie engaged to another man. We’re deprived of seeing Younger Allie’s anguished reaction to being forced apart from Noah. And later when they’re finally reunited, the climactic moment is inexplicably lackluster.

There is absolutely nothing I can say here that could alter the emotional impact of The Notebook on its devoted fans. It’s a classic boy-meets-girl tale with a heartbreaking twist. You might even say it’s the best of the genre.  And yet, on the big stage, this richly layered romance feels short-changed. Even with all that first class talent, The Notebook could have done more to earn the love.