CHICAGO—Romance is always appealing to young lovers, but when love spans a lifetime, it will appeal to everyone of all ages. Such is the case with “The Notebook,” the gripping, enchanting new musical that opened at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in Chicago, and is bound for Broadway.
The musical, adapted from Nicholas Spark’s 1996 novel, tells the same love story as did the 2004 movie starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. But as a stage production, it feels more intimate and personal than the film, and even more bittersweet.
Those who have seen the movie know its plot by heart. The tale of Allie and Noah, who fall in love as teenagers and whose parents try to separate them, is as old as Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Yet, in its modern incarnation the narrative feels fresh and new. That’s especially evident since the stage presentation has more challenges than did the film in trying to present the journey of an older married couple trying to relive a lifetime of love, while looking back at it through the ghostly lens of Alzheimer’s.
The musical begins in a nursing home with Noah reading to Allie, an Alzheimer’s patient. He reads, not from a novel, but from the notebook that recounts their love story. Noah does so day after day, hoping that the reading will help Allie remember their life together.
The actors portraying these end-of-life characters deliver the most powerful performances of the show. Maryann Plunkett, as the older Allie, compels our compassion as she tackles the fear and confusion of an uncontrollable, failing mind.
Although Jerome Harmann-Hardeman is the understudy for the elder Noah in this opening production, his patience and passion for his character’s wife is so sympathetic that one can’t imagine anyone else delivering a more riveting performance.
Movie Into MusicalProduced by Tony Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum, “The Notebook” features the songs and lyrics of singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, whose compositions are featured on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” The music so well enhances the magical quality of the bond between the lovers that it’s difficult to believe that this is Michaelson’s first stage musical.
Indeed, the lyrics and the melodic songs reveal the characters, their motivations, and their desires almost better than the spoken words of the script. The stand-out number is “I Wanna Go Back,” the one which Plunkett sings as the aged Allie. This is a lump-in-the-throat song in which Allie wants so badly to remember what she ate, when she left her home, and where she is at the moment.
Directed by Michael Greif and Schele Williams, “The Notebook” is a lovely and poignant musical that will lead us to embrace its romanticism and move us to tears. With a set by David Zinn and Brett Banakis, the Chicago Shakespeare stage is transformed into scenes from a lake country, a balcony, and the porch of a home. With choreography by Katie Spelman and lighting by Ben Stanton, a lot of technical talent is on display in the gripping musical.
But it has one minor flaw. With its three incarnations of Allie and Noah and the sudden shifting back and forth through time, it is sometimes difficult to keep the characters and their time periods straight. In some scenes, all six actors are on stage singing together, which can cause confusion.
But even when we are able to place the characters correctly, we still have to wonder about the reason for using so many actors to play the same people. Wouldn’t it have been less confusing to use the same actress and actor with makeup to age them?
That said, “The Notebook” is a profoundly moving new show that focuses on the importance of love and, with its empathetic passion, is guaranteed to engage our emotional attention.