‘The Notebook’ on Broadway Is a Smart Model for How to Adapt a Beloved Movie

Broadway adaptations of beloved movies are nothing new — and in fact will be increasing like never before this season with “Water for Elephants,” “The Outsiders,” “The Great Gatsby,” and more musical adaptations opening just in the next month.

It’s such a thrill, then, that “The Notebook” musical, based on the Nicholas Sparks book of the same name — which of course was also turned into the beloved movie starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams — is such a romantic, weepy success, managing to honor the tale fans know while also sneaking in a savvier story, one that doesn’t look away from the horrors of dementia but retains the beautiful message of everlasting love (sweet, piano-forward songs by Ingrid Michaelson help this along tremendously).

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The book, by Bekah Brunstetter, begins with a few smart updates: The earliest action between Younger Noah (John Cardoza) and Allie (Jordan Tyson) is moved from the WWII-era of the film to Vietnam-era, which Noah and friends get tangled up in, adding extra stakes. (The benefit of 30 or so years also allows the fact that they are a mixed-race couple to be unremarked upon.) Additionally, and rather brilliantly, the stage show introduces three versions of our main lovers, as opposed to the two sets from the film. The three versions of the couple often appear on stage all together, a sharp and moving choice that clearly demonstrates the strange ways our memories work, all tangled up and often in conversation with each other: Were we ever so young? Why didn’t I appreciate all that then?

It’s hard to imagine many audience members being unfamiliar with the popular story, so the production smartly excises much of the suspense of how, exactly, an older couple in a nursing home relate to a young couple falling madly in love and then drifting apart. They’re the same. We’ve got it. Dropping that mystery opens the door for other clever staging choices by directors Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”) and Schele Williams such as having Older Noah (Dorian Harewood) and Allie (Maryann Plunkett) park at the corner of the stage for large parts of the show watching their younger selves.

The three Noahs of ‘The Notebook’<cite>Photo: Julieta Cervantes</cite>
The three Noahs of ‘The Notebook’Photo: Julieta Cervantes

It’s a moving tableau, how quickly time shifts and slips away. Older Noah gets in plenty of aging jokes — “two young people, with glowing skin they did not appreciate, and bodies they’d spend the rest of their lives trying to get back” — that went over like gangbusters to the older-skewing crowd at the matinee this reporter attended. There’s actually a lot of age-related humor: A Gen Z nursing home attendant (an appropriately goofy Carson Stewart) is a fun representation of the well-meaning but cluelessness of youth.

With a lack of big plot mysteries, it helps that all three couples have charm to spare; Middle Allie (Joy Woods) and Noah (Ryan Vasquez) bring a sexy heat to some of the biggest beats of the second-chance love story (dreamy production design — including rain! — is a highlight). In fact, it almost kind of works that the third leg of their problematic love triangle, Lon!(!), is so forgettable; we spend next to no time with Middle Allie’s inconvenient fiancee. Don’t worry, everyone, he won’t be sticking around.

While all three versions of the couple have their sweet moments together, it’s disappointing the story isn’t quite developed enough for the different versions of Noahs and Allies to all feel like they share a similar DNA, despite similar clothes. That’s a bummer, as is Michaelson’s melodic but very similarly paced score. A few more high tempo moments in both the music and the story would have made the lows hit all the more.

And boy, are there lows. It’s a great credit to the production that as the horrors of dementia come into focus the show doesn’t fully drown in the tears (SO many tears!) of audience members. Instead, we’re left with a soft landing of sorts, thanks to the restrained, emotional performances of Harewood and Plunkett, melding the hopelessness of a disease with the hope that must come through in some way in all musicals — even the tragedies. If fans are left wishing they’d gotten a bit more time with people they’ve grown to care about, well, don’t we all.

Grade: B

“The Notebook” on Broadway is officially open. The film is currently available to stream on Max and Hulu.

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