‘The Notebook’ Broadway Review: Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams Are Sorely Missed

Broadway is crying out for a really good weeper. When it comes to romance on the musical stage these days, love is either tragic (“Days of Wine and Roses”) or it’s snarky (“& Juliet”). “The Notebook,” based on Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 bestseller, opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, and it strives to occupy that lucrative middle ground of melodrama.

Much beloved is the 2004 movie version in which an old man tries to reawaken his wife’s memory by reading aloud from her notebook. The new musical gets half the story right. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong half. Or the wrong third, as it turns out in this unusually cast production.

In the movie, the romance of the young lovers Allie and Noah, played by Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling in breakout performances, dominates the narrative. They aren’t so much in love as they are hornier than hell for each other, and Allie and Noah’s unabashed lust fuels the movie. It’s as close to soft-core porn as anything ever delivered by a movie rated PG-13.

Far less successful is the movie’s framing device, which are those scenes between James Garner and Gena Rowlands, whose Allie doesn’t make the connection between her husband Noah and the stranger reading the notebook until the movie’s end. Rowlands may have been the first character with Alzheimer’s to travel with her own personal stylist. In the movie, this older Allie looks ready to accept a career achievement award from Vogue.

On stage, Maryann Plunkett delivers an Allie who’s a very confused and troubled senior living out her last days in a nursing home, and her uncompromising performance is supported immeasurably by Dorian Harewood’s sympathetic Noah. When these two veteran actors are on stage together, “The Notebook” is the moving, unabashed, heartfelt tearjerker it’s needs to be.

The four actors playing Allie and Noah’s younger selves are another story. Book writer Bekah Brunstetter — or perhaps it was directors Michael Greif and Schele Williams? — has decided to use two couples to play the roles that McAdams and Gosling handled all alone. On stage, we get the younger Allie and Noah (Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza) and the middle Allie and Noah (Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez), with Plunkett and Harewood being the older Allie and Noah.

If that’s not confusing enough, imagine how you’ll feel when the middle Noah first shows up to sing a song about renovating the dream house for the middle Allie. I had no idea who this guy was, and had to wonder if maybe the younger Noah had hired an enterprising realtor to do the house makeover for him.

Playing the two youngish Noahs, Cardoza and Vasquez share the same reserved style of lovemaking. Needless to say, unlike Gosling, neither of them is going to make People’s sexiest man alive cover. But at least they’re operating on the same chaste page.

Regarding the two youngish Allies, it’s difficult to believe Tyson and Woods were ever in the same rehearsal room together. Tyson exhibits a spunky tomboy spirit. Woods appears to be auditioning for the next “Bachelorette.” When the middle Allie and Noah reconnect after a decade apart, their love scene in the renovated house plays like a fantasy suite episode gone completely awry. Neither of them deserves the rose.

This musical version of “The Notebook” features five interracial couples. Its casting can be seen as a progressive sign. It also requires that “The Notebook” musical takes place nowhere and in no specific time period. In the novel and the movie, World War II resonates as a defining event. How the middle and older Noah in the musical injured his leg is pretty much up for grabs.

The Vietnam War is mentioned but never dramatized. The redneck South of the novel and the movie is the real villain, and contributes profoundly to the oppression Allie and Noah experience. Here, the former Confederate states (North Carolina in the novel, South Carolina in the movie) have been banished and replaced with a far more tolerant place that does not exist.

Brunstetter’s script advises that the sets (by David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis) and costumes (by Paloma Young) “feel timeless.” That approach sometimes works for a classic tragedy, but a melodrama like “The Notebook” needs context. In this musical, the only thing keeping Allie and Noah apart is her rather uppity parents (Andrea Burns and Charles E. Wallace).

Ingrid Michaelson’s score is middle-of-the-road pop. It’s pleasant. It’s easy on the ears. It’s not in any way what this musical needs to be, which is soaring and romantic.

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