Countless readers and moviegoers have been devouring novels by Nicholas Sparks and films based on those books since the late 1990s, his first novel – and one of his most successful film adaptations – being “The Notebook.” A Broadway-bound musical based on the book is making its world premiere through the end of the month at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and trust me when I say that you should rush with a loved one to Navy Pier to see it: this “Notebook” has pages that will touch your heart.
If you’ve never read the book or seen the 2004 film with Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams and James Garner – or you have experienced one or both but wonder about any significant changes that might have been made in the transition to the stage – here’s a brief, relatively spoiler-free synopsis of the musical’s plot. We open in a retirement facility where one of the residents, Noah, is singing about how time has passed and about the “old man” he sees when he looks in the mirror (“The paint is chipping, but the foundation’s alright.”) The role of “Older Noah” was played by Jerome Harmann Hardeman, an outstanding understudy, on the night I saw the show – it’s possible John Beasley may return to the part before the run wraps up.
Allie is another resident in the same facility who appears to have major memory/Alzheimer’s issues. She doesn’t recognize Noah, but he offers to read her a love story, and Allie agrees to listen to this new friend’s tale about “two very attractive young people” who met in the summer of 1967, in a small South Carolina town. “Older Allie” (Maryann Plunkett) doesn’t realize that this story – laid out in a notebook Noah brings with him – is a story of their own love and heartbreak.
Two pairs of actors play these characters at earlier points in their lives. Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza portray the “Younger” Allie and Noah in ’67, when these two fell in love despite being from different sides of the tracks (her family is wealthy; Noah’s a hard-working lumberyard employee). Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez are the “Middle” Allie and Noah about a decade later, their lives having changed significantly. Why is there a gap of 10 years? Will Older Allie recognize Older Noah and the events in the notebook he’s reading from? Will their mental and physical ailments keep them apart? What kind of happy ending, if any, is possible for this couple?
What besides the intriguing plot is note(book)worthy? First and foremost, the music – there are songs that draw us into the immediate infatuation of Younger Noah (“Carry You Home”), the doubt-to-certainty of Younger Allie (“If This Is Love”) and the sadness seen in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s (“Iron in the Fridge”). Woods (Middle Allie) also has a song of self-introspection late in Act II (“My Days”) that uses her strong singing voice to show her character’s hidden internal strength. Plunkett doesn’t get a chance to sing much in the show, but her performance of the lyrics of “I Know” (“Where do I go when I go, when I disappear?”) shows the agony of someone with Alzheimer’s having a brief time of clarity about their illness. When a cast recording of the music by composer/lyricist Ingrid Michaelson is made available months from now, snatch it up.
A beautiful, two-story set that converts from a retirement facility to a pier to a hospital to an old house Noah renovates – and that includes water below, above and on the stage – shows that every aspect of the book, including our memories of a dramatic rain scene in the film, has been carefully considered. Also, the script includes occasional humor (“These are very sexy glasses, so please control yourself”), which provides a respite for the audience from the more dramatic plot points and the sadness. I also admired the effective use of lighting – from subtle, warm colors to single bright spotlights – throughout the show. Kudos to David Zinn and Brett Banakis (set/scenic design), Bekah Brunstetter (book) and Ben Stanton (lighting design).
The stars of this musical may not have the movie-star name recognition of Gosling, McAdams and Garner, but the leads and the supporting cast members (such as Liam Oh as Younger Noah’s friend Fin and Older Noah’s helpful physical therapist) are all excellent. Don’t be surprised if Jefferson Award nominations are plentiful for “The Notebook” – for actors (especially Woods), for Michaelson, for Brunstetter, for Zinn and Banakis, for Stanton, and for the overall artistic direction by Michael Greif and Schele Williams.
While the races/ethnicities of the “Younger” and “Middle” actors/actresses didn’t match up with the “Older” Allie and Noah, I found this colorblind casting to be refreshing and easy to grasp.
In summary, bring your significant other to see this moving production, and bring a handkerchief – at least one of you will need it.
• Paul Lockwood is a singer, local theater actor (including the new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” coming to the Woodstock Opera House), Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, theater reviewer, podcaster, columnist, business proposal writer, and past president of TownSquare Players. He’s lived in Woodstock for more than 21 years.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Notebook”
WHERE: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, Chicago
WHEN: Through Oct. 30
INFORMATION: 312-595-5600, www.chicagoshakes.com