Review | ‘The Notebook’ musical might make you cry, but that’s about it

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Weepies by Nicholas Sparks are so reliably engineered to produce puddles that “The Notebook,” which opened at the Schoenfeld Theater on Broadway on Thursday night, sells tissues at the merch counter.

Sentiment is the North Star of this page-to-stage adaptation, and those searching for an excuse to shed tears — who couldn’t use one, nowadays? — will find the musical delivers. But its creators, including singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson and “This Is Us” writer and producer Bekah Brunstetter, target feeling at the expense of character, specificity or surprise.

The production’s organizing conceit, and sole creative risk, is partially to blame. As in the 2003 movie, an elder Allie (Maryann Plunkett) has forgotten her decades-long romance with the dreamy Noah (Dorian Harewood), who recounts their saga from a notebook. Here, both younger and middle-aged versions of Allie (Jordan Tyson and Joy Woods) and Noah (John Cardoza and Ryan Vasquez) act out their shared past.

The familiar broad-strokes theme — love overcoming the passage of time — is spelled out upfront: “Time, time, time, time; it never was mine, mine, mine, mine,” sings a gentle and genial Harewood in the characteristically on-the-nose opening lyrics. (Plunkett is a standout as an audience surrogate, skeptical until she is lulled into a misty stupor.) All six iterations of the lovers are onstage, though it may take the audience a moment to catch on.

The directors Michael Greif and Schele Williams have assembled a talented array of performers to embody Allie and Noah. The fact that they are of various racial backgrounds allows audiences a welcome opportunity to stretch their imaginations. But the scrupulously colorblind casting also hamstrings the show from making many other narrative choices, to the detriment of its own logic and appeal.

Race might have been a dynamic tool to enrich an otherwise vanilla plot. Teenage Allie and Noah meet-cute on the heels of the civil rights movement, when even in the coastal Mid-Atlantic, their interracial sparks could have partly helped explain why Allie’s mother (Andréa Burns) disapproves. (The shift in setting from the novel’s 1940s North Carolina at least saves us from a loss-of-White-innocence scene on the floor of a crumbling plantation house.)

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Instead, Brunstetter’s book, which spreads thin as it flits back and forth through a half-century, resists delineating the central pair with much of any identifying detail. Allie still likes to paint and Noah is good with lumber, but an effort to maximize their relatability winds up sacrificing their flesh and blood. The roles can be played by different actors because there’s nothing very particular about either character. The result is anodyne — and lacks the erotic charge of an attraction with distinct flavor set against a recognizable world.

Michaelson’s pop score sticks to expressions of emotion — “Sadness and Joy,” “I Wanna Go Back,” “We Have to Try” — that could slot into nearly any boy-meets-girl tale, with acoustic guitar, swelling violins and plinking harp all standing in for heartstrings. The songs draw little inspiration from the various musical eras traversed by the story, instead maintaining a pleasant and palatable contemporary gloss.

The same is true of the physical production, which glistens in the reflection of a downstage water’s edge, below a canopy of A-frames and vertical fluorescent bulbs glowing like stationary falling stars (the set is by David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis, the lighting by Ben Stanton). Greif and Williams’s staging traverses locales and generations with handsome efficiency, aided in part by Paloma Young’s costumes, whose period finishes are subtle to a fault.

The affair at its heart, doggedly conventional though it is, will be enough to fuel waterworks for some fans of “The Notebook,” whose nostalgia for the property will fill in the onstage blanks. But the musical’s treatment of mortality, though another easy lever to pull, feels more organically resonant. No matter what sort of love passes between them, death will indeed part everyone. That’s a truth many people would pay to cry about in the dark.

The Notebook, ongoing at the Schoenfeld Theater in New York. 2 hours, 20 minutes. notebookmusical.com.

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