‘The Notebook’ review at Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Superb score, writing, cast

First, I must express a bit of shock.I simply was not expecting to fall in love with “The Notebook,” the new musical version of Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 over-the-top romantic novel, turned into a solid film of romantically saturated colors by director Nick Cassavetes, starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

But I have.

I was expecting teary and hoping for sincere.But I also must admit that, with a writer — Bekah Brunstetter, best known for her work on the shamelessly manipulative TV soap opera “This Is Us” –and a first-time theater composer, Ingrid Michaelson, arguably best known for the slew of songs that featured on the TV soap opera “Grey’s Anatomy” — I thought this musical version might aggressively aim for the tear ducts from start to finish.

‘The Notebook’

For the unfamiliar, “The Notebook” tells the story of Allie and Noah, each played here by three different performers to represent the characters — as the teenagers Younger Allie and Younger Noah (Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza); in their late 20s as Middle Allie and Middle Noah (Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez); and as Older Allie and Older Noah, elderly inhabitants of a nursing home (Maryann Plunkett and, at opening night, Jerome Harmann-Hardeman understudying for John Beasley).

The nursing home setting forms the frame, with Noah reading to Alzheimer’s patient Allie every day from the titular notebook that tells their own story, hoping for flashes that Allie remembers.The younger performers then play that history out, with the differently aged versions of the characters often onstage simultaneously.

Taking this time-spanning romance of a love that overcomes barriers of class differences, parental resistance, long-term separation, competing relationships, and even severe dementia, and setting it all to music on a big stage certainly runs the risk of going really sappy, really fast.

Older Allie (Maryann Plunkett, from left), Middle Allie (Joy Woods), and Younger Allie (Jordan Tyson) are shown in a scene from the stage musical adaptation of “The Notebook” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Liz Lauren

But what we see at Chicago Shakespeare is a pre-Broadway production that is not just safe for the skeptical. It’s a significant leap in artistic quality over its sources, which it respects, while also providing a clear, resonant, and unique voice of its own.

Brunstetter (who has also written well-respected plays like “The Cake”) and Michaelson (the very model of an indie singer-songwriter) adapt — in the best sense of the word — “The Notebook” into what feels like a deeply personal expression.

The book and score blend together so seamlessly that you can’t always tell them apart, and rather than amping this tale up to the larger-than-life, they go the opposite direction, making this more of a chamber musical about ordinary humans that also works, under the direction of Michael Greif and Schele Williams. They are assisted by an ace design team, at the Broadway scale, with mostly simple flourishes but also an impressive onstage rainstorm.

Younger Noah (John Cardoza, from left), Older Noah (John Beasley) and Middle Noah (Ryan Vasquez) in “The Notebook.”

Liz Lauren

Michaelson’s songs are just beautiful, her lyrics poetic and specific and only seemingly simple, bringing us instantly, for example, into Allie’s feelings when she sees Noah on the front page of a newspaper after a decade apart: “What happens to a person who forgets how to breathe?/ Who forgets who she is/ Who forgets where she is…”

With every solo and duet, every cast member feels emotionally connected to the moment with every word and note.It helps too, of course, that they are stellar singers.

There are so many extraordinarily smart choices here that I can’t even list them.But take, for example, the challenge of a character with Alzheimer’s, played with wondrous exactitude by Plunkett, in a romantic musical.How can she sing about her confusion when anything she’d sing would be too articulate to convey confusion?The brilliant choice:have her younger selves sing it for her: “Is it time for dinner/ Is it time for forever/ I didn’t know the last time I’d leave the house/ Was the last time I’d leave the house.”

That song, “I Wanna Go Back,” is so poignant, and also so restrained, that it should be studied carefully for the way Michaelson differentiates sentiment and sentimentality, a quality this entire show excels at.

And kudos to Greif and Williams for the cross-racial casting choices even with the same character at different ages.Once we’re settled comfortably into the theatrical device, it becomes an underlying expression of the universality of this specific work.

That choice, as well as the contemporary sound and a gentle updating of the time periods, makes “The Notebook” aesthetically very current and fresh.

And likely, hopefully, very lasting.

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