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Review: THE NOTEBOOK at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Review: THE NOTEBOOK at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

The world premiere musical plays through October 30

The world premiere musical THE NOTEBOOK captures the sentimental energy of Nicholas's Sparks all-encompassing love story about Allie and Noah, two young lovers who come from entirely different social strata, and has a distinct point of view on its source material. With music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson, book by Bekah Brunstetter, and direction by Michael Greif and Schele Williams, THE NOTEBOOK takes a narrative that I frankly found overly maudlin in movie form and softens it as a musical. Michaelson's cohesive score and lyrics, while not necessarily catchy, provides a wistfulness that befits Allie and Noah's star-crossed lover journey. Fans of Sparks's original 1996 novel and the 2004 film will recall that THE NOTEBOOK operates on parallel timelines-We meet the elderly Allie and Noah in the nursing home; Allie suffers from dementia, and Noah diligently reads from a notebook recounting their epic love story in the hopes of helping her recover her memory. When I saw the film, I found it cheesy. But the musical's intimate production values and lush harmonies make it more moving.

Michaelson's score echoes the sounds of other recent contemporary musicals, especially its predecessor WAITRESS. The score doesn't contain any uptempo, grandiose numbers, but the delicate nature of the music doesn't make it boring. Instead, the gentle music is fitting for the material. Michaelson's approach to the music gives THE NOTEBOOK a distinct sound that invites audiences into the world of the story. While most of Michaelson's lyrics aren't all that specific, the music combined with the lyrics gives the show a defined atmosphere and ties it all together. Likewise, Brunstetter's book elegantly connects the present and the past in a way that's not at all confusing for audiences, though some of the scene-to-song transitions seem abrupt.

The production design has an ethereal nature to it, echoing the epicness of Allie and Noah's classic love story. David Zinn and Brett Banakis's set design conveys a sense of openness and imagination, providing a canvas upon which our main characters can paint their love story. Paloma Young's costume designs are similarly lovely and keenly represent that age-old dichotomy between Allie's posh background and Noah's more working class upbringing. Ingrid Michaelson and Carmel Dean's co-vocal arrangements, John Clancy and Dean's orchestrations, and Geoffrey Ko's music direction ensure that the score sounds lovely in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Yard space, and sound designer Nevin Steinberg's sound mixing is just right. Much of Michaelson's score asks offstage actors to supplement numbers with beautiful harmonies, and it all sounds just right. There's also a breathtaking a cappella moment.

THE NOTEBOOK necessitates having actors in the role of Allie and Noah for whom we can root. The material represents Allie and Noah at three stages: Younger, Middle, and Older. The six actors that play these pivotal roles all succeed in conveying the tenderness and electricity that forms the heart of Allie and Noah's relationship. In the roles of Younger Allie and Noah, Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza deliver every ounce of earnest sweetness and affection as the young lovers. Tyson and Cardoza also both have honeyed vocal tones, which means the songs they sing together have a literal sweetness to them as well. Maryann Plunkett gives a heartbreaking and beautiful performance as Older Allie; it's oftentimes quite painful to watch Plunkett's Allie in her addled state, but she gives the role full respect. Jerome Harmann Hardeman, listed as the understudy on opening night, performed as Older Noah, and he was likewise stunning. Hardeman easily conveys Noah's undying devotion to Allie.

I was most impressed with Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez in the roles of Middle Allie and Noah. Woods and Vasquez harmonize beautifully; their voices sound so rich together. Woods and Vasquez also land all the right notes when the lovers reunite after ten years apart, conveying the simultaneous trepidation and familiarity of the situation. Woods is a knockout vocalist, and Michaelson has written a challenging and gorgeous 11 o'clock number for Middle Allie that she absolutely nails. While the musical has no dance numbers, Katie Spelman's role as choreographer comes in handy when staging the pivotal rain scene between Allie and Noah-fans of the film will no doubt remember that moment between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Along with the directors, Spelman creates a lovely tableau-and, yes, there's real rain onstage.

THE NOTEBOOK wisely uses its ensemble as well: Yassmin Alers, Andréa Burns, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Dorcas Leung, Omar-Lopez Cepero, Sophie Madorsky, and Liam Oh all have specific parts to the play in the show. But it's clear that these actors have also all been cast for their vocal abilities; many of Michaelson's songs become richer with the vocal arrangements that add additional color in the background.

The overall effect is that THE NOTEBOOK is a pretty musical indeed. The musical treats Allie and Noah's love story with a lighter touch than its source material, and the overall result is moving and graceful. In musical form, THE NOTEBOOK washes over audiences instead of hitting anyone over the head with bombast and cheese. Sure, parts of the narrative are still sappy and unrealistic, but Allie and Noah's story feels more grounded and lovely in the musical. It's an approach that works well for this musical adaptation.

THE NOTEBOOK plays The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 600 East Grand Avenue, through October 30, 2022. Tickets are $45-$125.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren



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