Was it just a few years ago that Chicago Shakespeare Theatre hosted the American premiere of the Broadway-bound Six? That joyful and electric production was staged in The Yard, CST’s smaller, more flexible venue. Now, that venue once again heats up with a New York-bound production: the Covid-delayed Ingrid Michaelson/Bekah Brunstetter musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ runaway bestseller The Notebook. And just as with Six, Chicagoans who see this play, which runs only through Oct 30, will be getting a glorious preview of a show very likely destined to be nominated for many Tonys.
Most people know The Notebook through reading (and re-reading) the novel or through the 2004 film that features the iconic and unforgettable kissing-in-the-rain scene between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. I’m happy to say that the rain and the kiss are still here, that all of the multiple actors who portray the couple are absolutely brilliant, and that the musical contains all of the tear-jerking emotional moments dedicated fans will expect. (Many patrons, including my son, who was sitting next to me, found themselves overwhelmed with tears and even sobbing near the end of this truly heartfelt story. You have been warned.) But what impressed me most about this production was Michaelson’s utterly amazing score.
The musical includes twenty dynamic and powerful songs that are so lovely and so poignant that my reaction throughout was to hope that a soundtrack becomes available very quickly. Michaelson, an accomplished pop singer and songsmith, follows in the footsteps of others like Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) and Anaïs Mitchell (Hadestown) in rebranding herself as an exciting and original new voice for Broadway. Like those others, her work here has a unique quality to it that feels at once perfectly at home on a stage and provocatively distinct in its style. The songs often feature multiple versions of the same character (the show gives equal weight to Noah and Allie as teenagers, twenty-somethings, and old, sick people), and quite often Michaelson allows a refrain to come from more than one of them, the ghosts of the past still present in the future. Most musicals heading to Broadway still have considerable work to do when they come through Chicago, but this one feels pretty much fully cooked and has Michaelson and Brunstetter to thank.
At one point, middle Allie (Joy Woods), about to settle for someone other than the man who makes her heart (and flesh) sing, asks younger Allie (Jordan Tyson), whose impetuous youth makes the unlikely dream of a bourgeois teen with conservative parents marrying an uneducated nobody somehow seem possible, just how she managed to become who she is now. But this older (but not necessarily wiser) version of herself hasn’t forgotten passion completely. Discovering that Noah actually has built what he always called “their” house, she impulsively leaves home a week before her scheduled marriage—and a decade since she was forced to leave him by her parents—to see him. She tells herself it is just for a short visit, to satisfy curiosity, but a not-insignificant part of herself knows that she will not return. We do too, since her much older, Alzheimers-impaired self is in a nursing home where the elderly Noah (a very sympathetic Jerome Harmann Hardeman) is reading her the story she wrote about their lives together before succumbing to her disease, hoping that it will “bring her back,” as she promised it would. Hardeman’s Noah, despite his frailties, easily echoes the drive of his younger selves (played with love-colored confidence by John Cordoza and Ryan Vasquez) even though he suffers from far more than the injured leg that Brunstetter’s excellent book acknowledges, as novel readers will know. Andrea Burns, as Allie’s mother, is also striking, as is Jassmin Alers as Nurse Joanna.
Michael Greif, whose Broadway credits include the original version of Rent, co-directs this production with Schele Williams on an absolutely lovely set by David Zinn and Brett Banakis that manages to include the nursing home, the house that Noah builds on the river, and even the river itself, among other more suggested locations. The orchestra also is onstage, but hidden, and under the direction of Geoffrey Ko provides a lush accompaniment to the beautiful vocals from all of the actors. Every element of The Notebook comes together to create an emotional and entertaining night of theatre that I predict will have a long Broadway run. See it now or wait years for the inevitable national tour.
The Notebook is presented in The Yard by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier and runs through Oct 30. For tickets and information, please visit Chicago Shakespeare Theatre or call (312) 595-5600. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.