Lovely score, impressive performances power Chicago Shakespeare's superb 'Notebook'
“The Notebook” - ★ ★ ★ ½
“Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds ... it is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.”
No part of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 is quoted in “The Notebook,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater's beautifully sung and acted and gracefully staged premiere of the musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' best-seller, which also inspired the hit 2004 film starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.
Yet his description of enduring love pervades this sweetly romantic, time-shifting chronicle of the near-lifelong romance between Noah and Allie, who as teenagers encounter class bias and parental disapproval. After a long separation fueled by misconception, they reunite as adults. Finally, as seniors married more than 40 years, they confront dementia's terrible toll.
In a nod to the story's universality, both Allie and Noah are played at various ages by performers of different races. Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza play the teenage couple, whose summer romance ends with a forced separation. Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez play late 20-something Allie and Noah, who reunite after a decade apart. Maryann Plunkett (whose eloquence and honesty earned sustained applause opening night) and the equally impressive Jerome Harmann Hardeman (filling in for John Beasley) play long-married, elderly Allie and Noah. They reside at a nursing home where Noah reads to Allie every day from a notebook chronicling their love affair, hoping to spark her memories of their life together.
Funny and lyrical, Bekah Brunstetter's book shifts between the present and the past to tell Noah and Allie's story, which unfolds to composer/lyricist Ingrid Michaelson's tender, contemporary pop score. Paired with plain-spoken, resonant lyrics, Michaelson's songs seamlessly advance the narrative. Among the highlights are Cardoza and Tyson's euphoric expression of first love “Carry You Home”; Vasquez's achingly hopeful “Leave the Light On,” and “Forever,” a number that offers an amusing glimpse into the minds of Middle Allie and Middle Noah as they contemplate reviving the love neither of them ever renounced. Their rain-soaked reconciliation is so credibly conjured by set designers David Zinn and Brett Banakis, lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound designer Nevin Steinberg, that one forgives the inclusion of the overused trope.
But perhaps the show's most emotionally provocative moment comes courtesy of “I Wanna Go Back,” a moving expression of longing that comes near the end of the first act (the stronger of the two). In this delicate, sweetly harmonized duet, Woods and Tyson - Allie's younger selves - express the longing their older self (Plunkett) cannot articulate but will resonate with anyone who has witnessed a loved one coping with dementia.
In this striking scene (a reflection of Katie Spelman's choreographic expertise), Older Allie (a masterful turn by Tony Award-winner Plunkett) grasps for memories just beyond her reach as people she's known turn and drift away. A poignant visual depiction of memory loss, it is an example of exquisite, thoughtfully retrained staging from Michael Greif and Schele Williams.
Eschewing cheap sentiment, the co-directors ensure “The Notebook” earns its emotion honestly. In a show about love that outlasts youthful infatuation and endures “even to the edge of doom,” that makes all the difference.
Location: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago. (312) 595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 30
Running time: About 2 hours, 15 minutes, with intermission
Parking: $21 in the Navy Pier garage with CST validation
Rating: For teens and older, contains some nudity, sexual content
COVID-19 precautions: Masks optional