The world premiere musical The Notebook, now onstage at Chicago Shakespeare’s Yard at Navy Pier is a deeply moving love story, and as all love stories are, a profound tragedy. Based on the novel of the same name, (there is also a film based on the novel) the musical begins with an elderly gentleman reading about a teen romance to a woman clearly well advanced in the dimness of dementia. It becomes clear that the gentleman is actually her husband who she no longer recognizes, and the love story he is reading is theirs, written in a notebook she used to try to remember who she is. I will not spoil the ending, but as anyone who has ever loved someone lost to dementia knows, there are no truly happy endings in that story. But there is love, and devotion, and Jerome Harmann Hardeman brings to life the Older Noah in a light handed, touching way. Maryann Plunkett’s Older Allie captures the terror and confusion of losing oneself when the memories and mind go. Younger Allie Jordan Tyson and Middle Allie Joy Woods give us a visceral idea of how much has been lost.
The nurses on the staff of the facility that Allie and Noah inhabit as well as the adorably comic physical therapist played by Liam Oh are instantly recognizable as the passionately committed yet overworked understaffed heroes of American elder care.
Directors Michael Grief and Schele Williams lead us through this specific and universal story with a delicate hand, but they have made some really interesting choices: color blind casting is never truly color blind in America and a cross racial love story that challenges class stereotypes in 1967, the year it actually became legal for whites to date blacks, carries a hidden weighty backpack that would not be there would the casting be all white as it is in the movie. The fact that the couples' race changes in old age also adds several layers to the dynamic: given that race in America determines so much about health care access and diagnoses, the casting adds a thoughtful note to considerations of end of life care.
Composer and lyricist Ingrid Michaelson has given us some anthems to the passage and ravages of time, and some paeans to choices you regret or don’t. I’m seeing some of these songs as standalone hits. This is an epic tale fit into a manageable box, most eloquently outfitted by the set design of David Zinn and Brett Banakis and evocative lighting by Ben Stanton. I especially liked the color changing light tubes with bulbs that become stars in the night sky.
This musical is an instant classic, and one you can and should bring your generations to. There are a lot of questions that can be asked of oneself and of family members on the way home: the most prominent is what is love when you no longer know who you are?
The Notebook is playing at Chicago Shakespeare's Yard space on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Avenue in Chicago, Tuesdays through Sundays until October 30, 2022. For tickets and information go to https://www.chicagoshakes.com/plays_and_events/notebook
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