The Notebook Review: On Stage, a Nicholas Sparks Adaptation Held Captive by Its Clichés

This show never transcends the clichés that it conflictingly both seeks to challenge and embrace.

The Notebook
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

“Time, time, time, time, it never was mine, mine, mine, mine,” sings the elderly Noah Calhoun (Dorian Harewood) in the opening number of The Notebook, the new Broadway musical with a gossamer score by indie-pop singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. “But you know what is?/Love, hope, breath, and dreams/As cliché as that seems.”

Cliché is at the heart of The Notebook’s appeal, from Nicholas Sparks’s 1996 novel to the 2004 film starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling as destined lovers Allie and Noah. “You are every reason, every hope, and every dream I ever had,” Sparks banally wrote in the novel. “Every day we are together is the greatest day of my life.” Though Michaelson alludes, with seeming self-awareness, to the platitudes of the source material in that opening song, this production never quite transcends the clichés that it conflictingly both seeks to challenge and embrace.

That’s in large part because of a score that showcases Michaelson’s gifts for creating sweet, folkish atmospheres but reveals the irreconcilable gap between her lovely, if static, tunes and the musical storytelling required to build character or intertwine song with dramatic urgency. Surely Allie and Noah could summon greater specificity than quatrains like, “It’s low and then it’s high/It’s good inside the bad/It’s loving when it’s hard to love/And laughing when it’s sad.”

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Because writing for character means writing in distinct voices, there’s a thin line in musical theater songwriting between the simple and the simplistic: Unlike her gratifyingly accessible pop music, Michaelson’s score here falls on the wrong side too much of the time. That’s a shame, because, in revisiting the story, Michaelson and book writer Bekah Brunstetter have laid out the structure for a thoughtful adaptation that improves upon both the book and the film adaptation.

The Notebook charts a daily ritual: Noah reads to his Alzheimer’s-affected wife, Allie (Maryann Plunkett plays the oldest version of the character), hoping that hearing their story retold again and again will spark her flickering memories. We see their early adolescent courtship (John Cardoza and Jordan Tyson are Young Noah and Allie) and the rekindling of their flame a decade later (Ryan Vasquez and Joy Woods complete the set as Middle Noah and Allie), when Allie is engaged to another man (an underused Chase Del Ray).

Centering the older versions of Noah and Allie throughout reframes The Notebook as a piece that’s mostly about the impact of Alzheimer’s on a couple’s life together, the necessity of clinging to your own story in the face of a forced forgetting for which there’s no cure. Some of the songs are exceedingly short—perhaps not much more than a minute—as if gesturing toward the fleeting nature of Allie’s memories, though this connection is never made explicit.

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Wisely, only the central characters sing solo, with the rest of the ensemble providing occasional ambient vocals (the script refers to those singers as “Soundscape of Memories”). With the score filtered pointedly through the lens of two lives (but six voices), The Notebook achieves an aptly intimate perspective. And Paloma Young’s clever costumes allow Allie and Noah to retain consistent fabrics and color schemes as they age, even as fashions evolve.

But the actual love story that Noah reads Allie remains so slight, so entirely devoid of characterization or significant conflict, that the critical act of recalling a shared life never feels meaningful enough as dramatic motor. While Sparks’s novel invests more satisfyingly in each character’s interiority, the vapidity issue troubles the Nick Cassavetes film throughout. Worse, Noah and Allie, by virtue of having barely any attributes apart from each other (she kinda paints and thinks her fiancé is boring, and he does stuff with lumber and went to war), are tricky nonentities to sustain a running time of over two hours on stage. And Brunstetter accompanies the time-period transplant from World War II to the Vietnam War with very little detail that might push the storytelling beyond gauzy fairy tale. A 90-minute, intermission-less approach might better befit the writers’ emphasis on vibes over verisimilitude.

The Notebook
Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, and Jordan Tyson in The Notebook. Julieta Cervantes

More so than either the novel or the film, Brunstetter’s book for the musical intermingles the three timelines, suggesting a haze of memory that allows the adolescent and young adult Allies’ stories to play out in sometimes alternating scenes. At its best, as in “I Wanna Go Back,” which the younger versions of Allie sing together while trailing Older Allie like half-remembered phantoms, the freedom to move between eras lends dramatic potency. This cross-pollination of time periods brings out some of the sharpest stage pictures from co-directors Michael Greif and Schele Williams, as when Older Allie weaves searchingly between the younger couples.

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But some of Brunstetter’s adventurous chronology has the opposite effect, slackening whatever mild tension the story once possessed. Once we know exactly when and how Allie and Noah reconnect as adults, what besides the ample heat generated by Cardoza and Tyson’s performances is left to hold our attention when we return to their adolescent entanglement?

Then again, The Notebook is, in all its incarnations, a fundamentally lusty tale, and that’s something this production leans into with often sizzling success. Both younger couples sing separately about their physical desire (“God, he looks good/In that shirt, in those pants/I wanna rip ‘em off with my teeth,” offers Middle Allie in a less-subtle moment), and even Plunkett’s Older Allie finds great titillation in hearing the saga of her sex life. The classic rain scene, glamorously lit by Ben Stanton, also mirrors the film’s dripping sensuality.

Even better than the rain, though, are the six actors embodying Allie and Noah in triplicate, with Plunkett (a Tony-winning ingénue in the 1980s but more recently a stalwart of off-Broadway dramas) and Woods as particular standouts. (All the Noahs sing gorgeously, even if only Harewood has any real complexity to play.) Plunkett, ever a warmly wise performer, provides a gently calibrated depiction of dementia with heartbreaking glimmers of lucidity.

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It’s Woods, though, who emerges as The Notebook’s anchor as if from a better show, as she seems to know a whole lot more about Allie than the book and score tell us. And she infuses Michaelson’s melodies with a more pragmatic, precise musical theater interpretation that grounds the airy music in Allie’s reality. Woods gives The Notebook the kick in the pants it sorely needs and the dramatic momentum it otherwise seldom earns.

In a bit of astute casting, Allie and Noah are each played by actors of diverse racial identities. (Allie is played by two Black actors and a white actor, Noah the reverse.) That’s a creative, clear gesture of invitation to all audiences to see themselves in the story. But when we turn back to gaze on our own memories, may we all recall lives more richly drawn than Allie’s and Noah’s.

The Notebook is now running at the Schoenfeld Theatre.

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader. He’s also written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare. Check out his podcast The Present Stage.

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