Theater Review: Broadway’s ‘The Notebook’ Is Shallow, Boring and Slow

From the baffled comments overheard during intermission, the audience didn’t seem to know that all those people they were watching were playing the same two characters.

Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez as ‘Middle Allie’ and ‘Middle Noah’ in ‘The Notebook’ on Broadway. Copyright 2024 Julieta Cervantes

The Notebook | 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. | Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre | 236 West 45th Street | (212) 239-6200

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Why are Broadway musicals suddenly so lousy? Many reasons, I can safely assume: geniuses die, leaving a hole in history with no one to replace them; teams of amateur hacks are everywhere, filling gaps once occupied by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe, and Comden and Green; considering the garbage they listen to every day, it’s no wonder wanna-be songwriters couldn’t write a memorable melody or an intelligent lyric line with a gun to their heads; clueless producers with no taste plunk down plenty of money to finance projects without a hope in hell of commercial success. Nobody has written a classic musical score with any originality and style since the death of Stephen Sondheim.

After his lovely and haunting Light in the Piazza, I had high hopes for Adam Guettel, but this season’s flop, The Days of Wine and Roses, proves the rumor that he spends every waking moment thinking of ways to avoid any comparison to his illustrious grandfather, the one and only Richard Rodgers. So what we’re getting instead of fresh, original musicals is increasingly forgettable carbons of old movies. The newest disappointments are The Notebook and Water for Elephants, a pair of gooey, predictable and temporary tearjerkers based on two of those corny romance novels cut from the same fabric as The Bridges of Madison County that teenagers drag to the beach with a nickel pack of Kleenex.

More about Water for Elephants next week, but first The Notebook,  saccharine fiction by Nicholas Sparks that found its way into an inevitable 2004 movie that shamelessly poured on more schmaltz as it chronicled events in the labored story of Allie and Noah, a pair of lovers who survive endless pitfalls for five decades and still love each other long after mutual devotion has been invaded by personal tragedy. The movie tells the story of their saga through the eyes of two separate versions of Allie and Noah, who are of different ages. The device was annoying, but I remember enjoying it anyway. With older Allie and Noah played by ravishing Gena Rowlands and charming James Garner, and younger Allie and Noah played by beautiful Rachel McAdams and handsome newcomer Ryan Gosling before he became a Ken doll, what’s not to like?

Maryann Plunkett (left), Joy Woods (center) and Jordan Tyson (right) as Allie in ‘The Notebook’ on Broadway. Copyright 2024 Julieta Cervantes

The choppy, overwrought new Broadway production turns Allie and Noah into three couples instead of two, and every time they waft in and out of each other’s story, their races change along with their genders. The old Allie is now an elderly blonde in a nursing home suffering from dementia, and the old Noah, who seems years her senior, is Black. She doesn’t know if he’s the janitor or a fellow patient, but one thing she never suspects is that he’s been her husband for 54 years. Cut to two periods in their youth, and the two Allies are suddenly Black, and their Noahs are white. They all sing loud, which is not the same thing as good, but to no effect because the score is so forgettable that the songs seem to be inserted for the sole purpose of dragging out the running time. To make everything doubly confusing, old Allie doesn’t know who anyone is, including herself. From the baffled comments overheard during intermission, the audience didn’t seem to know, either. It is doubtful that half the audience knew all those people they were watching were playing the same two characters.  

Before Noah can rehabilitate Allie and bring her back to normal, he has a stroke and now there are two lovers in terminal danger. No mention is made of the interracial pairings, so it is unfair to dwell on that aspect of the confusion, but when all six Allies and Noahs sing together, chaos reigns. What worked on the screen in a lugubrious, long-winded way doesn’t work on the stage at all. Both Ingrid Michaelson, who penned the boring, surface-deep songs, and Bekah Brunstetter, who wrote the shallow, sentimental book, are making their Broadway debuts, and the lack of experience shows. The badly needed element of poignancy to add depth to cardboard characters is nowhere in sight.

The cast of ‘The Notebook’ on Broadway. Copyright 2024 Julieta Cervantes

This a shame because Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood, who play Older Allie and Older Noah, are engaging pros who deserve a better showcase. I was especially excited to see Harewood in a leading role that guaranteed Broadway stardom at last. I once shared the stage with him in one of those all-star AIDS benefits in Hollywood that showcased the historic songs of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and he sang a heartbreaking arrangement of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “Gigi” I have never forgotten. I thought the stardom that had unfairly eluded him in the past would finally happen at last when he co-starred in the 1974 Broadway musical Miss Moffat, the musical version of The Corn is Green, starring the one and only Bette Davis. Alas, it closed in previews.

Now, here he is, at last, excellent as always but woefully denied any kind of show-stopping number you could confidently call memorable. This is the fate of the entire cast, unexceptionally choreographed by Katie Spelman and directed with mediocrity (there’s that over-riding keyword again) by Schele Williams, both of whom are also making their soggy Broadway debuts. Michael Greif, curiously listed as a second director for reasons known only to the producers, has done fine work elsewhere, but in The Notebook, he doesn’t appear to do much more than move the actors from one dark part of a room into the next, like furniture.

The result is a shallow, boring and totally irresolute The Notebook that crawls at a snail’s pace.

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Theater Review: Broadway’s ‘The Notebook’ Is Shallow, Boring and Slow