Bekah Brunstetter didn’t take the easy way out.

The esteemed playwright was given the assignment of turning Nicholas Sparks 1996 best-seller THE NOTEBOOK – as well as Nick Cassavetes’ well-regarded 2004 film version – into a Broadway musical.

Many librettists who adapt novels and films to the musical theater stage simply chop and drop the dialogue in favor of where songs will be sung. Not Brunstetter. She deserves an enormous amount of credit for not routinely appropriating lines from the earlier works. Seldom is heard a derivative word, for she’s too talented to just crib other writers’ work. 

It’s still the story that starts with Older Noah, visiting his wife, Alzheimer’s-afflicted Older Allie, in a nursing home. He reads to her their long, up-and-down, on-again, off-again autobiographical story from a notebook, hoping that what she hears will jog her memory. Perhaps for even for a few fleeting moments, they can regain what they once had.

That includes mention of Young Allie’s passion for painting. Brunstetter enhances that by having Young Noah better appreciate Allie’s passion by saying, “It’s not just a hobby; it’s you.” 

Equally impressive near show’s end is Brunstetter’s having Older Allie tell her husband “Help me while I’m here.” How poignant that she’s suddenly lucid enough to know who he is, but also knows that in a few minutes that she’ll be reverting to her Alzheimer’s state of not knowing him. 

While Brunstetter was at it, though, she should have cut the unbelievable and ludicrous details that plagued the novel and film. 

(Be forewarned, though, with Spoiler Alerts that may make you miss the next three paragraphs. If you’re unaware of what happens in THE NOTEBOOK, skip down four paragraphs. If you are familiar with the property – which you probably are – stick around.)

Young Allie’s parents view Young Noah as poor white trash, so they leave their summer home to separate the lovers. Young Noah dutifully writes Young Allie each and every day for a solid year. Because she never once answers, one would think that the young man would have become discouraged far earlier than Day 366. 

She isn’t getting his letters is because her mother goes to the mailbox each day and intercepts them. After a few days of no correspondence, wouldn’t Allie – knowing how her mother feels – smell a rat and get to the mailbox beforehand? 

The truth is revealed only years later, at which point the mother admits her interference – and produces those 365 letters tied neatly with a ribbon and bow. No, she would have pitched each of them into the fireplace before the mailman had reached the end of the driveway.

What Brunstetter has wisely done is update THE NOTEBOOK from the ’40s to the ‘70s. Not only can the current Broadway audience identify more with mentions of The Vietnam War than with World War II, but the update also provides the chance for Young Allie and Middle Allie to have more feminist backbone, which is welcome.

Yes – there’s a Middle Allie and a Middle Noah, too, which was a misstep that we can probably attribute to Brunstetter. Stuffing another couple into the mix makes the situations more artificial and keeps an audience from becoming as emotionally involved.

Ingrid Michaelson’s music sounds right for the era and her lyrics occasionally sparkle. (One of the first has Older Noah admit as he gets up from a chair, “Time to let the bones crack into place.”) As is today’s standard (or lack of standards), her lyrics don’t always accurately rhyme: “breathe/leave,” “time/mine,” and many others.

The look of the show is dull. For some shows, such as BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE, a unit set isn’t particularly injurious; here it is, for one of the great aspects of the film was seeing Young Noah over time transform a veritable shack into his beautiful home. When Young Allie arrives, she’s overwhelmed at all he’s done. 

If only we could be. 

Set designers David Zinn and Brett J. Banks do no more than show the “new-and-improved” residence as a door, three windows with shutters, and some interior landings. Under these circumstances, the lass’ astonishment at all he’s achieved is quite an overstatement.

In 2017, ANASTASIA proved that handsome projections don’t make audiences pine for genuine scenery. THE NOTEBOOK needs notable projections to get the audience to oooh and ahhh over what Young Noah has accomplished. 

There is another missed opportunity that projections would enhance. Let’s see Allie’s paintings to prove that she is indeed talented.

The irony is that 1:40 into the 2:20-minute show, we do get a handsome projection of a moonlit lake. Why did designer Lucy McKinnon start and stop there? Only her producers know for sure.

Having Middle Noah and Middle Allie turns out be injurious in yet another way. Ryan Vasquez seems far dorkier than John Cardoza’s solid portrayal of his younger self. Joy Woods, who’s obviously supposed to be older than Jordan Tyson, actually seems more callow than her younger counterpart, for she has a terrible case of the cutes.

Of course Woods is not solely responsible for her characterization. What’s she’s delivering is apparently what co-directors Michael Greif or Schele Williams wanted.

Otherwise, the directors keep the show moving smoothly, and Woods can sure can sing her big eleven o’clock number. Vocally, it’s a very strong show, and all the actors named above can’t be faulted, either. The only way Cardoza fails – here comes a nitpick – occurs when he strips off his shirt and Young Allie moons in song over his chest hair. Tyson has next to none.

Dorian Harewood is tender as Older Noah, but best of all performers is Maryann Plunkett. From the opening moments, she mesmerizes as Older Allie. When she looks at people from her past swirling around her, we see her desperately trying to place them.

Young Allie had long ago learned to play the piano. Now she tries again, and the definitive way that Plunkett closes the cover over the keys lets us know that she’ll never attempt to play again.

If the budget allows a cast of 13, two salaries shouldn’t have been wasted on the middle couple; instead, a couple of other performers could have been cast to cut down on the doubling. The excellent Carson Stewart plays a male nurse, exits, and returns six or seven seconds later wearing glasses and portraying Young Noah’s good friend. Many tourists who have room for one Broadway show on their summer trip may well be confused by doubling and might assume he’s the same character. After all, they’re not used to it, for they don’t see doubling on TV or in movies. 

And how often do tourists go to the theater? The Broadway League did a survey some years ago in which it discovered that a “heavy” theatergoer attends a Broadway show four times a year. Chances are, with prices always skyrocketing, that in the ensuing years the figure has devolved to three, two, or one.

There may also be a considerable number of NOTEBOOK virgins who will be confused by the extensive non-traditional casting. Little consistency can be found from one generation to the next; sometimes you’re looking at a Black Allie, but sometime a white one. The same goes for Noah. Allie’s parents are a mixed race couple, too. 

Even those who know THE NOTEBOOK film might feel unmoored for a while, because non-traditional casting didn’t occur in the film.

(Hollywood, in both feature films and television, hasn’t embraced it any more than it has incorporated doubling.)

Lord knows that colorblind casting is a boon to actors who are getting many more opportunities than they had in the past. But tourists just aren’t used to it, and while they might accept an occasional member of a different race as someone’s relative, THE NOTEBOOK takes the practice to its most puzzling heights.

Future productions might take note of the fate of THE NOTEBOOK.