Broadway/Off-Broadway Review

Notebook, Illinoise: Jerking Tears, Dazzling Dance

If sentimentality is your thing, The Notebook is definitely for you. Based on Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 best-selling novel, which became Nick Cassavetes’ 2004 cult-favorite film, this musical mines every treacly plot point for maximum tearjerking effect.

Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez in The Notebook.
Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The story features a simplistic plot twist which you should be able to figure out early on even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Dementia patient Ally receives daily visits from fellow nursing-home resident Noah who reads her the story of a volatile romance from a handwritten notebook. As the story is acted out by two sets of younger lovers at different ages, it’s gradually revealed they are the protagonists in the story and Noah is reading it to her to restore her memories of their life together. The conflict is class-based as Ally’s well-off parents—particularly her snobbish, but practical mother played by the wonderful Andrea Burns—reject the working-class Noah as a suitable prospect for their college-bound daughter. (Ironically, all of the roles have cast in a color-blind manner, so race and ethnicity do not enter into the mix.)

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods and Jordan Tyson in The Notebook.
Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Maryann Plunkett is especially moving as the older Ally, feelingly conveying her desperate search for meaning in a clouded, consuming world. Dorian Harewood is effecting as the Older Noah, his love for Ally driving him despite numerous infirmities. Joy Woods stands out as Middle Ally. She has the sharpest conflict to play and delivers a complex performance, sometimes comic, sometimes heartbreaking. She battles between a pragmatic match with public defender Lon (Chase Del Rey doing the best he can in a role diminished from the film) and her true amour Noah, who has renovated the dream house of their teenage romance (Ryan Vasquez is virile and tender as Middle Noah). Jordan Tyson and John Cardoza are adorably smitten as the youngest pair of lovers. Carson Stewart nicely provides extra character details in the dual role of Noah’s teen pal and a helpful physical therapist at the nursing home.

John Cardoza, Dorian Harewood, and Ryan Vasquez in The Notebook.
Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The ever-resourceful Michael Greif (Rent, this season’s Days of Wine and Rose and Hell’s Kitchen) and Schele Williams deliver a proficient, slick production employing David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis’ flexible set to cinematically convey a variety of locales including a pond with real water. (We also get a real rainstorm.) Paloma Young’s costumes help get the characters’ identities straight, but don’t tell us much about the various time periods. The cast is professional and passionate. The score by Ingrid Michaelson is pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable. Bekah Brunstetter’s book tries to keep the syrup-level to a minimum and juggles the multiple timelines with dexterity. All of these elements are at a Broadway-level and your mileage may vary depending on your sugar tolerance, but for fans of weepy romances, The Notebook should fit on your shelf.

Ricky Ubeda and Ben Cook in Illinoise.
Credit: Stephanie Berger

While The Notebook is conventional and predictable, Illinoise is innovative and startlingly different from most theatrical fare. But they both deal with the struggles of love, just in different ways. Derived from Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 concept album Illinois, this dance-theater piece, now at the Park Avenue Armory after runs at Bard Summerscape and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, takes a fairly cliched trope and tells it with vigor and excitement featuring electric choreography by Justin Peck. The central love triangle is nothing new, but the brilliant staging and the sheer magnetism of the cast of dancer-actors and singer-musicians brings it to vital life.

Byron Tittle and Robbie Fairchild in Illinoise.
Credit: Stephanie Berger

The story, credited to Peck and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) begins in the program found on the seats before the show starts. Like The Notebook, the story starts with a hand-written narrative. Henry (an affecting Ricky Ubeda) writes of his childhood crush on the straight Carl (moody Ben Cook) who in turn is in love with their mutual friend Shelby (ethereal Gaby Diaz).

But before Henry’s story is developed and he meets his first adult love Douglas (charismatic Ahmad Simmons), several of Henry’s friends gather around a campfire to dance out their tales from their own journals. These vignettes include a rumination on African-American ancestry, a recasting of the founding fathers and other dead white male historical figures as menacing zombies and segments on serial killer John Wayne Gacy and the heroic myth of Superman.

Peck’s dazzling dances are accompanied by a lush full orchestra and heavenly vocals from keyboardist Elijah Lyons and electric guitarists Shara Nova and Tasha Viets-VanLear. Adam Rigg’s otherworldly set combines elements of sci-fi fantasy and small-town loneliness illuminated by Brandon Stirling Baker’s atmospheric lighting.

The cast of Illinoise.
Credit: Stephanie Berger

The separate dance pieces don’t really connect with each other or with most of the lyrics in Stevens’ fascinating songs, but the overall production intoxicates as do the dancers and singers. In addition to the already mentioned, Byron Tittle delivers a dynamite tap solo, and Rachel Lockhart, Jeanette Delgado, Alejandro Vargas, and Robbie Fairchild ably lead the segments before Henry’s central one. Too bad the story is the weakest link in an otherwise impressive dance-theater piece.

The Notebook: March 14—July 7. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission.

Illinoise: March 7-26. Wade Thompson Drill Hall/Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., NYC. Running time: 90 mins. with no intermission.

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