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“The Notebook” review: Nicholas Sparks' novel leaps off the page and onto the stage in emotional new musical

Noah and Allie's love story still isn't over! The pair's whirlwind romance is brought to life once again — this time on the stage — in its finest adaptation yet.

Everyone's heard of The Notebook. Whether it’s through reading Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling debut novel or its 2004 blockbuster adaptation starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, most can recall some semblance of Noah and Allie’s whirlwind romance — or, at the very least, their propensity for arguing and dramatic kisses in the rain. Now, The Notebook is leaping off the page and onto the stage in a poignant new musical that is, without a doubt, its finest adaptation yet.

The Michael Greif- and Schele Williams-directed musical, which opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Thursday, chronicles the decades-long relationship between Noah Calhoun, a lower-class lumber worker, and affluent artist Allie Nelson as class differences, war, and illness threaten to keep them apart.

Adapted from Sparks' original novel by Bekah Brunstetter (best known for writing and producing This Is Us), its book splits the couple’s love story into three separate timelines that all weave together over its two hour runtime, starting with their starry-eyed youth, to their uncertain adulthoods, and finally their soul-crushing twilight years. The end result is a non-stop emotional rollercoaster full of butterfly-inducing highs and heartbreaking lows. (Seriously, there’s a reason why this musical sells its own branded box of tissues.)

<p>Julieta Cervantes</p> Jordan Tyson (Younger Allie) and John Cardoza (Younger Noah) in 'The Notebook'

Julieta Cervantes

Jordan Tyson (Younger Allie) and John Cardoza (Younger Noah) in 'The Notebook'

Theatergoers are first introduced to the oldest versions of Noah (Dorian Harewood) and Allie (Maryann Plunkett) when he visits her at their shared living facility and offers to read her a love story. Allie, who is living with Alzheimer’s disease, is suspicious, but warms up to the idea when Noah begins to regale her with a tale about “two very attractive young people with glowing skin they did not appreciate, and bodies they'd spend the rest of their lives trying to get back.”

Instantly, the musical turns back the clock to the moment young Noah (John Cardoza) first locked eyes with out-of-towner Allie (Jordan Tyson, in her incredible Broadway debut) at a dreamy dock party. Over the course of a single summer, the pair fall madly in love only to be forced apart when Allie’s disapproving parents end their trip early.

Skipping a few chapters ahead, the couple's middle-aged selves are now living entirely separate lives — and, to make matters worse, Allie (Joy Woods) is set to marry another man, Lon (Chase Del Rey). When she discovers an article about Noah (Ryan Vasquez) renovating the home they’d dreamt about in their teens, Allie pays him a visit before her big day and must decide whether or not to deviate from her parents’ path to be with a man she hasn't seen in years.

<p>Julieta Cervantes</p> Joy Woods (Middle Allie) and Ryan Vasquez (Middle Noah) in 'The Notebook'

Julieta Cervantes

Joy Woods (Middle Allie) and Ryan Vasquez (Middle Noah) in 'The Notebook'

What truly sells the couple's romance — and, by extension, the entire show — are the dazzling performances by every version of Noah and Allie. Each pair serves a different purpose within the couple's journey: Cardoza and Tyson are tasked with capturing the dizzying highs and dramatic lows of teenage love with their bubbly chemistry, while middle-aged Noah and Allie, played by Woods and Vasquz, bring the heat as they tap into their characters’ ardent love for one another and equally fiery tempers. (Don't even get me started on their vocals, either — Woods' "My Days" is a total knockout that, rightfully, received a minute-long ovation.)

However, it’s Plunkett and Harewood’s performances as elder Allie and Noah that are the true heart and soul of The Notebook. From her very first scene, Plunkett brings a natural warmth and humor to Allie that makes it easy to see why Noah fell in love with her, and her emotions that bubble over as she struggles to remember feel real and heartbreaking. As Noah, Harewood is an undeniable star who imbues the character with such a gentle kindness and love for his wife that he made me burst into tears on three separate occasions — none harder than during his gut-wrenching performance of “Iron In the Fridge" — and I seldom cry at Broadway shows.

<p>Julieta Cervantes</p> Maryann Plunkett (Older Allie) and Dorian Harewood (Older Noah) in 'The Notebook'

Julieta Cervantes

Maryann Plunkett (Older Allie) and Dorian Harewood (Older Noah) in 'The Notebook'

Further amplifying The Notebook is singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson’s stellar soundtrack which features lyrics that run the full gamut of human emotion, from young Noah and Allie reconciling after their first big fight (“Sadness and Joy”), to Allie hilariously wanting to rip off Noah’s pants with her teeth after reuniting as adults (“Forever”), to “I Wanna Go Back,” masterfully sung by Woods and Tyson, which poignantly asserts that Allie’s memories are still with her. If Michaelson's lyrics alone don't make theatergoers tear up, then her soaring orchestrations certainly will.

Meanwhile, scenic designers David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis and projection designer Lucy Mackinnon seamlessly transform the stage from a sterile hospital room to a moonlit fishing dock (complete with pool and rain that pours from the rafters), while costume designer Paloma Young cleverly uses color to tie each version of the couple together: all of the Noahs wear at least one article of clothing that’s an earthy brown tone, while all of the Allies wear a cornflower blue hue. In doing so, the production's color-conscious cast not only remain connected amid the musical’s ever-changing time periods, but the clothes also provide a visual representation of Allie and Noah’s love as their respective wardrobes slowly blend together. 

<p>Julieta Cervantes</p> John Cardoza (Younger Noah), Dorian Harewood (Older Noah), and Ryan Vasquez (Middle Noah) in 'The Notebook'

Julieta Cervantes

John Cardoza (Younger Noah), Dorian Harewood (Older Noah), and Ryan Vasquez (Middle Noah) in 'The Notebook'

Brunstetter also makes some changes to The Notebook too, most noticeably pushing its setting from the 1940s to the ‘60s. As a result, Noah and Allie are presented both with new opportunities — she's college bound — and struggles, like when Noah is drafted into the Vietnam war and suffers a permanent knee injury. She also spectacularly highlights the struggles that families caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s face in an emotional scene in which Noah and Allie’s family come to visit, only for Allie to become overwhelmed by them and suffer a breakdown.

Still, it’s worth noting that it becomes easy to spot how The Notebook operates by its second act: a heartfelt scene, an emotional song, and then a one-liner to make theatergoers laugh after bawling their eyes out. Fans of the film will also notice that the musical doesn't make excuses for Allie's mother, and that Lon’s role is diminished. However, it also introduces new characters too, like the affable physical therapist Johnny (Carson Stewart) as well as stern, yet caring Nurse Lori (Andréa Burns).

The Notebook is well aware of what theatergoers are expecting from it before they take their seats: they want to laugh, they want passionate arguments, they want kisses in the rain, and, most importantly, they want to believe in a love that conquers all. With its stunning performances, beautiful songs, and supreme stage directing, the musical succeeds in delivering a fresh spin on its original material while also making sure that Noah and Allie’s story is never truly forgotten. A-

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