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

Flex those tear ducts – two decades after the film of The Notebook, itself an adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks weeper, was released, a musical version has bowed on Broadway, the latest in the ever-growing list of film-to-stage adaptations. Co-directed by Michael Greif (no slouch himself when it comes to wringing a tear or two from audiences in musicals ranging from Rent to Next to Normal to this year’s Days of Wine and Roses and Hell’s Kitchen) and Schele Williams, and working off of a book adaptation and score by two acclaimed artists new to Broadway, Bekah Brunstetter and Ingrid Michaelson, the adaptation makes no bones about wanting its audience in tears. In fact, it almost seems like they’d prefer it if no one were to watch it with clear eyes.

Notebook begins in a nursing home where an elderly Noah (Darian Harewood) faithfully reads from his journal to his wife Allie (Maryann Plunkett), suffering from dementia. Noah hopes the tale in the titular notebook, which chronicles their great love story, will stir her memory and bring her back to him, at least one more time.

But his reading of the notebook allows the audience to hear their tale for the first time, from the beginning, jumping back and forth through time as two sets of actors play younger versions of Allie and Noah – Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza as teens, then Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez nearly a decade later. Allie comes from a well-to-do family who disapproves of the working-class Noah that Allie meets while summering in the Outer Banks.

After a few weeks of chaste courtship and one night together, her parents yank her out of town, and away from Noah. After nearly a decade goes by, and each thinks the other has forgotten them, Allie, now an artist and not just engaged but about to marry her fiancée, nice-guy lawyer Lon (Chase Del Ray, given nothing to do), reads an article about a house Noah has restored and on a whim returns to him. Despite having served time in Vietnam, witnessing the death of his best friend, and having other relationships, Noah is essentially frozen in time. Notebook tells us he has done nothing but pine for Allie, awaiting her unlikely but somehow inevitable return.

These events are interspersed with scenes of older Allie and Noah dealing with her dementia (which Plunkett, always excellent when left to her own devices, is directed to grossly overplay). Brunstetter has also balanced out the pathos of these nursing home scenes with a new character, a physical therapist who discovers the notebook (Carson Stewart), meant to add comic relief and sound very 2020s.

Brunstetter’s adaptation – which moves the events from a starting point of the 1940s to 1967 – keeps the essential plot points from Sparks’ novel, but flattens them. The connection sits in our heads but not our heart – there isn’t enough happening onstage beyond plot architecture to sense any earned chemistry between Allie and Noah. The plotting is also wrongheaded because Notebook asserts itself as a tale of true love; at best, the show can only attempt to make a case for first love – and it does an iffy job at that. What would have helped were a real sense of obstacles – make Lon a real threat; give Noah a rebound girlfriend, or PTSD, something to signify he went on to live a life after Allie left town – and it shows that in the case of the film adaptation, stars do make a difference. Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams shared a chemistry that elevated the movie beyond banal pulp.

This flattening should create space for Michaelson’s music to add new life to the show – but the music is too limp to do so. The string-heavy score feels introspective, but many of the lyrics are generic and repetitive and feature incomplete rhyme (the opening number pairs “time, time, time” with “mine, mine, mine”). Additionally, one song that Cardoza and Tyson sing as they get intimate includes lyrics about Noah’s chest hair – but the actor, fit and smooth as most Gen Z Broadway actors are, has none. It sounds petty, but did no one – not Greif or Williams, not anyone in costuming or hair and makeup or stage management or casting or Michaelson herself – ever pay attention to the show to notice the discordance? The lack of attention to detail striking. (That Allie’s mother, played so well by Andrea Burns, has no musical number in which she explains her own reasoning for disliking Noah, is a missed opportunity.)

Additionally, the math is off here. Notebook has cast three couples to tell two different stories: first, a story of two young lovebirds torn apart and the will-they-won’t-they of their reunion a decade later; second, a story of a couple late-in-life torn asunder by dementia. This creates an imbalance. What is the point in casting two couples to play the younger version of Allie and Noah? The colorblind casting of the couples – with each a different set of mixed races – does not distract, but on a more literal level, it creates a problem: The plot posits that though years have gone by, Allie and Noah have not changed and belong together. But in casting two actual different people to play them when they reunite, the message is the opposite. The choice tells us that yes, they are different. They have changed. Why is this production’s governing thesis at odds with the evidence it has on display?

Make no mistake, the cast is not at fault here. They all do what they can with the material, and play their respective ages naturalistically. Other pros do what they can here, too. The prolific Ben Stanton’s lighting design helps evoke the appropriate emotions of sadness and joy, and Katie Spelman’s choreography adds poetry.

But this show knows its bread is buttered in tears, and it wants its audience to cry. They even sell Kleenex at the bar in anticipation of the expected sobs. There’s an arrogance to an effort so steeped in sentimentality and tears – the creative forces know they’ve already got their audience; the film and novel have reeled them in. I wish they would have done the work to earn it.

The Notebook
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre