Theater Review: Without Gosling or geese, Broadway’s ‘The Notebook’ goes for the guts, without guile

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NEW YORK — The romantic tearjerker “The Notebook” lands on Broadway in awkward musical theater form this spring having previously conquered books and movies. It is intent now on making a live audience openly weep by employing massive doses of schlocky sentimentality without the aid of Ryan Gosling.

The bombastic musical that opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is about a love for the ages but has understated songs by Ingrid Michaelson, who offers coffee house vibes instead of passion’s thunder. The book by Bekah Brunstetter loses gas well before it’s over and piles on the melodrama.

This adaptation from a Nicholas Sparks novel is the love story of poor boy Noah Calhoun and rich girl Allie Hamilton, told as the elderly narrator reads the story to his elderly wife with Alzheimer’s, the two later revealed to be the young couple of the story, whose passion was interrupted by meddling parents.

For the stage, three sets of multicultural Noahs and Allies have been hired for different stages — there’s inflation even on Broadway — so that at some points there are six people on stage representing our central couple, a somewhat diffusing effect. Luckily, the boys are dressed in brown and the girls in blue, like in kindergarten. It’s a bad sign when your Broadway musical needs color cues to distinguish the cast.

Directors Michael Greif and Schele Williams as well as choreographer Katie Spelman seem to complicate the visuals by rushing everyone around in a breathless whirl, saying, in effect, that what love really does is make you want to sprint.

The older couple (Maryann Plunkett and Dorian Harewood) rarely leave the stage, weirdly hanging around to watch their younger selves, with elderly Noah supposedly reading from his notebook to trigger his wife’s memory. This effect is also used in the Neil Diamond musical and it’s just creepy, pulling focus and complicating the scenes.

The film’s chronological timeline has been shattered, which is a welcome idea, allowing time to be manipulated and scenes to dissolve and overlap, perfect for a musical about Alzheimer’s. But that opportunity has been squandered and instead we have songs like “Iron in the Fridge” or the cringey lyrics “Is it time for dinner?/Is it time for forever?”

Credit the writer for not aping the Gosling-Rachel McAdams film’s most charming visual bits — hanging off a Ferris Wheel, lying down in a street or boating with geese. But adding another health crisis, creating a tiresome physical therapist for comic relief and a terrible metaphor about sea turtles — “they return to the same nesting spot where they were born” — shows some desperation.

You better believe the movie’s lusty rain scene has made the leap to the stage — the couple even do that now-famous clinch several times. Unfortunately, there’s plenty more musical to go after that — including some death, leaving many audience members sobbing at a recent preview. Maybe they were just upset at how hammy it all was.

Michaelson does nail some tunes — “Leave the Light On,” “If This Is Love” and the wonderfully comedic “Forever” — but there are some 20 pieces of music and most dissolve in your mind mid-song. A real belter — “My Days,” for the excellent Joy Woods — is a welcome respite, but seems from another musical.

The multicultural cast has prompted the setting to change from the 1930s and ’40s to the ’60s and ’70s (you can tell because of the Diane von Furstenberg-like wrap dresses) and away from South Carolina to “a coastal town in the mid-Atlantic,” robbing it of specificity.

Perhaps that’s why scenic work by David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis is so odd. It’s the first hybrid hospital-boating dock design seen on Broadway in quite a while and hopefully the last. There’s a pool of real water there, and every once in a while, a pilon or a boat hull, juxtaposed with a neon Exit sign and chilly hospital decor.

Such jarring touches overshadow a lovely attempt to show the evolution of Noah’s renovated old house, his goal to winning Allie back. It is first referenced in abstract pieces — a window here, a porch there — until it comes together as real when she finally calls it home. Like a sea turtle.

Lighting designer Ben Stanton has hung neon tubes vertically, trying to bridge the difference between fluorescent office lights and stars, and failing. Adding to the show’s way-too-muchness is the sound effect of a ticking clock. A messy Act 1 finale leads to the unwelcome sight of Act 2 beginning with a comatose patient, so don’t rush back from the bar.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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