Fascinating music

Music is Love’s Food: A Review of The Notebook at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Middle Allie (Joy Woods) and Middle Noah (Ryan Vasquez) at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s World Premiere of ‘The Notebook’/Photo: Liz Lauren

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A best-selling 1996 novel by Nicholas Sparks and a popular 2004 film with a cult following, “The Notebook” has finally been unveiled as a long-awaited Broadway-bound musical after several years in development.

On paper, such an endeavor seemed precarious. How could a musical adaptation carry the gravity and nuance of an ailing elderly couple’s journey trying to relive and rediscover the joys and turbulence of a life of love through the fog of Alzheimer’s disease?

The brainchild of former Deerfield resident and Broadway impresario Kevin McCollum – who also originally developed the award-winning “Six” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater where “The Notebook” had its world premiere Thursday night – the hit Masterful was recruiting folk-pop singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson to write the songs and lyrics.

This is Michaelson’s first musical, but it completely nailed his first effort out of the park. Much of what makes a musical work isn’t just great songs, although “The Notebook” has plenty of them. Equally important is how the music organically enhances the narrative, what it can communicate that words alone cannot. Here the answer is everything.

Younger Noah (John Cardoza) and Younger Allie (Jordan Tyson) at the world premiere of The Notebook at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

There are three incarnations of Allie and Noah: Younger Allie and Noah, Middle Allie and Noah, and Older Allie and Noah. Michaelson’s songwriting voice remains so consistent through each one that we neither notice nor care about the change back and forth (and yes, thanks also to the incredible vocal and dramatic virtuosity of a stellar cast) . The beauty of this is that the three Noahs, for example, can sing in unison or in harmony at the same time. Younger Allie and Noah can join the ranks of us, the audience, watching what happens when Middle Allie and Noah reunite after years of separation. The music is brilliantly allowed to convey timelessness. At one point, Middle Allie and Noah sing a duet of their innermost thoughts that are never directly spoken. It’s a stellar moment because it lets us get high with their hearts while their heads are still sorting things out.

In fact, this show constantly upends our normal expectations of time. From the opening, when Older Noah watches Younger Allie and Noah, we leave everyday time behind and enter a dreamlike world far more “real” than clock time.

Older Allie (Maryann Plunkett), Middle Allie (Joy Woods) and Younger Allie (Jordan Tyson) in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater world premiere production of

So much so that in the end it’s all Older Allie is left with, at least when the words she wrote in her notebook about their life’s love journey are read to her over and over again and can temporarily light an ember in rekindled passion. This music is used to do that – which is supposed to be the last thing to do when the memory of the everyday evaporates – is extremely powerful and thought-provoking.

“The Notebook” in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Avenue, chicagoshakes.com, (312)595-5600. Until October 30.

Younger Noah (John Cardoza), Older Noah (John Beasley) and Middle Noah (Ryan Vasquez) in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater world premiere production of ‘The Notebook’ / Photo: Liz Lauren

Younger Noah (John Cardoza) and Younger Allie (Jordan Tyson), Older Noah (John Beasley) and Older Allie (Maryann Plunkett), and Middle Noah (Ryan Vasquez) and Middle Allie (Joy Woods) in the world premiere production of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater of “Le Carnet”/Photo: Liz Lauren

Older Noah (John Beasley) and Older Allie (Maryann Plunkett) in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater world premiere production of