Thursday, March 14, 2024

REVIEW: The Notebook

Review of the Sunday evening preview performance on February 25, 2024 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City. Starring Maryann Plunkett, Dorian Harewood, Joy Woods, Ryan Vasquez, Jordan Tyson, John Cardoza, with Andrea Burns, Yassmin Alers, Chase Del Rey, Hillary Fisher, Juliette Ojeda, Carson Stewart and Charles E. Wallace. Book by Bekah Brunstetter. Music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Orchestrations by John Clancy and Carmel Dean. Vocal arrangements by Ingrid Michaelson and Carmel Dean.  Scenic design by David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis. Costume design by Paloma Young. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Projection design by Lucy Mackinnon. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Choreography by Katie Spelman. Direction by Michael Greif and Schele Williams. 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission.

I had seen the film version of The Notebook for the first time only days before seeing an early preview of the new musical which opened last night. And I vaguely remember reading the novel decades ago. So I knew what to expect story-wise, but I did not expect what I saw on stage that night. This show does what all of the best stage adaptations of well-known properties do: it creates a fresh take in a purely theatrical way, leaning into, not away from what makes live theater so different from other mediums. 

There are just enough familiar things from the beloved film in Michael Greif and Schele Williams' staging and Bekah Brunstetter's tight book to appease fans of earlier versions. That kiss in the rain is there (and not just in the logo) much to the delight of the audience - you could feel a contented sigh as it happened. And dare I say that smelling the rain and hearing its patter on the floor while watching Noah and Allie share that kiss was even sexier and more romantic as a live experience?! By and large, this generational romance-through-the-ages tale embraces theatricality at every turn, and the result is an emotional, beautiful roller coaster ride.

David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis' set design along with Paloma Young's costumes and Ben Stanton's lighting combine to make everything both intimate and epic - perfect for a timeless (and throughout time) love story. With the "current" time in shadowy greys, the sterility and safety of the nursing home is conveyed wordlessly, while the "past" comes at us in swirls of earthy browns and sky/sea blues. Noah is always in those earthy browns, and Allie is always in those brilliant blues. One imagines those colors figure prominently in all of this couple's memories. 

Greif and Williams' staging is, for the most part, very fluid, with land and water imagery very much a part of the action - not just the famous deluge, but also on a downstage pier-like walkway and water feature utilized to romantic effect, and the water's reflection on the walls and ceiling of the theater a constant reminder. By conveying the main characters at three stages of their lives, we can see in stage terms what is on the written page, and what it implies. Sometimes chronologically - they appear in order as the story progresses - but also often simultaneously, they appear together showing us how who they were informs who they are. Moving in and out of the action also allows us to see how blips of key events come and go in the mind of someone losing their memory at a tragically fast rate. The way the three couples (and various supporting characters) are used is simply beautiful.

As mentioned earlier, Ms. Brunstetter's book is very tightly constructed - no mean feat considering the very nature of the story. (One imagines that in the preview period it got even tighter.) What strikes me about the book is how seamlessly it fits not only with the story and staging, but how it blends effortlessly with Ingrid Michaelson's gentle, yet sweeping score. A newcomer to the world of musical writing, she's written a heartfelt tribute to love, loss and love again. Several of the songs have a similar feel, but with definite character driven motifs and playful changes in tempo and tone. The way they complement each other mirrors the reality of each moment, while almost swirling around each other as memories are revealed and lost to the abyss. In this case, the similarity between many of the songs works very well. The gorgeous orchestrations by John Clancy and Carmel Dean really take the music to emotional heights.Two of the several score highlights for me were "Leave the Light On," sung with an endearing hopefulness Middle Noah, and the anthemic finale version of "Carry You Home," providing a cathartic moment for both audience and company.

If I had to point to any particular weakness of the staging or the score it's that both push what I call the "Dear Evan Hansen Button" a few too many times. It's that modern tendency to have a singer stop dead center stage and sing like they are Idol contestants, complete with overwrought gestures and head movements, all leading to the obligatory option up/money note followed by an orchestral button that fairly begs for audience approval. A big 11 o'clock solo is a time honored Broadway tradition, but not 4 or 5 times a show. Most of the times that this happens it feels so...obligatory. All of the songs are strong enough not to be so overplayed.

The company of actors is really above reproach, from small ensemble roles to the main characters, each contributes to the whole in such a way that I have to wonder how good it would be without each and every piece of this puzzle. Both Juliette Ojeda (on that night for Dorcas Leung) and Chase del Ray bring a special something in two small but pivotal roles, and Carson Stewart, who makes a charming and funny debut as a persistent physical therapist and as Noah's young friend, is a breath of fresh air in the midst of sorrow. The always wonderful Andrea Burns makes a meal out of two less than sympathetic characters - Allie's snooty mother and a hard as nails nurse. The beauty of her performance, though, is the humanity she finds in what could easily have been one-note villainy.

Of course, the lion's share of the drama comes from the dream team pairings of "Young," "Middle," and "Older" Allies and Noahs. Each pair beautifully builds upon the prior generation and informs each other with finesse and depth. And when they are all in scenes together, it is musical theater bliss. Jordan Tyson (in a terrific debut) and John Cardoza are a joyful pair of young lovers, full of optimism until they are torn apart by forces out of their control. They both exude a playfully innocent sexual and emotional energy that makes you long for first love all over again. Mr. Cardoza, who we caught in Jagged Little Pill, is one of those actors you can't keep your eyes off of, his charisma is so intense, and Ms. Tyson just makes you smile. 

Showing two people torn apart and making do is a genuinely emotional experience with the magnetic pairing of Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez, who both continue their streak as performers to watch - both are destined for greatness. Ms. Woods lets us see just how fragile Middle Allie's coping with reality is, and how hard she fights to get control of her own life. And, man, can she sing! Similarly, Mr. Vasquez's Middle Noah struggles to keep that survivor's veneer of strength, and it all gets washed away the minute he is in his beloved's arms (that really is one hell of a rainstorm!). There is a sadness in his eyes that betrays an aching, defeated soul, that gives way to the power of love. Separately and together, they mesmerize.

But it is the Older Noah and Allie that really capture and break your heart. Dorian Harewood conveys such patience and unwavering determination you find yourself willing Allie to remember right along with him. His Noah is so strong and gentle; he is the man all men should aspire to be. There is a very brief moment where you see Maryann Plunkett as Allie before her illness takes over, and it reminded me of her Tony Award-winning performance in Me and My Girl. Even nearly 40 years later, she exudes a bright, plucky energy. That all too brief glimpse makes the rest of her performance so emotionally devastating. When you see what was, what is is nothing less than tragic. Ms. Plunkett is, quite frankly, giving the performance of her career. She disappears into the role so completely, you forget that (fortunately) she herself isn't really afflicted. Her portrayal is right up there with the great Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery a few seasons back. 
When the older couple shares their final joyful, love-filled moments together it is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

It seems now that a standing ovation is de rigueur, but this one started before the finale was over and continued even after the company left the stage. It really is that good.

📸: J. Cervantes

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