Review: The Notebook, a Sentimental Tale, Arrives Refurbished With Song and Dance at Chicago Shakespeare

The Notebook is a love story, told over three stages of the lifetime of its lovers, Allie and Noah. The beloved book by Nicholas Sparks was turned into a 2004 film and now has been recreated as a musical play. Chicago Shakespeare is staging The Notebook after a two-year pandemic delay; it’s likely headed for New York.

The new production, co-directed by Michael Greif and Schele Williams, features music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson and book by Bekah Brunstetter. Allie and Noah are each played by three different actors over the course of the story and the intriguing choreography by Katie Spelman sometimes has all three generations on stage at once, as if they were dreaming of their past and future lives. The story is saccharine and ends sadly, punctuated by sobs from audience members sitting in front of us. (Yes, it’s that kind of story. Bring tissues.)

Noah and Allie, at three stages of life. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The scenic design (David Zinn and Brett Banakis) in the flexible Yard space is the star of the show. The upper level of the two-level stage sometimes is used for dramatic lighting displays (by Ben Stanton) or becomes a balcony surrounding the lower stage—and ultimately rolls down to become the front porch of the old house that Noah has rebuilt for his beloved. At play’s end, the 11-piece orchestra is revealed, playing above and behind the stage action. Music direction is by Geoffrey Ko with orchestrations by John Clancy and Carmel Dean. Sound design is by Nevin Steinberg.

As I noted above, this is a play with music; it’s not sung through as a musical or opera would be.

Older Allie and Noah (played by Maryann Plunkett and by understudy Jerome Harmann Hardeman until John Beasley can return) are strong performers and the center of the story, as he reads to her from the eponymous notebook—their story. They’re both living in a senior residence; she’s suffering with dementia and rarely recognizes her husband or other family members. (The play portrays Allie’s condition straightforwardly but sensitively.)

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods and Jordan Tyson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The story that leads to this late-in-life chapter begins with younger Allie and Noah (Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza), meeting in their late teens, falling in love and being separated by her parents. Ten years later, they meet again—at the house that middle Noah (Ryan Vasquez) has renovated. Middle Allie (Joy Woods) is engaged to someone else but this time her parents don’t succeed in separating them. These two early stories are briefly told in song, dance and dialogue but don’t really result in well-developed characters for Allie and Noah. The class/wealth division especially needs more emphasis. .

The score isn’t memorable although a few of the songs have powerful lyrics (“Leave the Light On” sung by middle Noah in act one, for example). Plunkett has a beautiful, strong voice and so does Woods as middle Allie when we hear her sing “My Days” near the end of act two.  

We reported earlier on a conversation with composer Michaelson and playwright Brunstetter at the American Writers Museum. Check it out for clues on how they were developing the work.

The Notebook continues in the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through October 30 with performances Tuesday-Sunday. Tickets are $59-$125. Buy them online or call 312-595-5600. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Masks are optional but recommended.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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