March 23, 2024

Old Stories—and Old Guys—Get the Spotlight in "The Notebook" and "Water for Elephants"

In the journalism business we say that three occurrences of a thing make it a trend and so right now the hottest trend in theater seems to be musicals centered around the memories of old guys. 

It may have started with A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond jukebox musical that opens with a character called “Neil Now” sitting in a therapist’s office and looking back at the pop singer’s life. His memories unspool in flashback scenes punctuated by musical numbers and occasional observations from the old guy that lead up to an epiphany at the end.  

 A similar framing device is used in two new shows that opened this month: The Notebook and Water for Elephants. Both are based on bestselling novels that were turned into movies that leaned into feel-good nostalgia about the supposedly simpler times of the Great Depression and War years. And now both stories are on Broadway in big productions set to scores soaked in roots music and giving some old Broadway vets another moment in the spotlight.

Both Dorian Harewood in The Notebook (click here to read more about him) and Gregg Edelman in Water for Elephants play old men who, in one way or another, are mourning the loss of wives who were—as always is the case in these stories—their soulmates. 

This is a smart conceit because it gives Baby Boomers, an aging but still reliable audience for Broadway shows, characters to identify with. But at the same time, it keeps the old-timers on the edges of these stories, freeing the main narratives to focus on the young people that usually populate Broadway stages.  

Each of the shows also tries to navigate the challenge of reproducing iconic moments from the book or film (Notebook's embrace in the rain, Elephant's animal stampede) while offering something extra that will lure those fans into the theater instead of their re-reading the book or re-watching the movie at home. 

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter has written a smart book for The Notebook that adds some bits of much need humor to author Nicholas Sparks’ somewhat sappy story. But the primary way that The Notebook sets itself apart from its predecessors is to have three, instead of two, sets of actors play its main characters: the working-class Noah and his great love Allie, a rich girl who in old age has developed dementia that is erasing the memories of their love and the life that, against the odds, they built together. 

Michael Greif and Schele Williams, who co-directed the show, have cast their multiple Noahs and Allies in a self-consciously inclusive way in which actors of different races play the same character in different time periods. They’ve insisted that doing so universalizes the story’s theme of true love conquering all (click here to watch them explain it).

It is great to see actors of color being given such centerstage roles but all the color swapping can also be a little confusing. “Wait,” said the guy sitting behind me during intermission.  “You mean that young white guy is now that old black guy?”

The veteran book writer Rick Elice tackles the adaptation of novelist Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” a story about a young guy named Jacob Jankowski who hooks up with a down-on-its-heels traveling circus and falls in love with the ringmaster's wife. 

Elice has gotten rid of a couple of the book’s characters, sanitized others and streamlined the narrative. All of this leaves a lot of plot holes for the audience to fill in. But that may be, at least in part, because Elice had to make room for not only the show’s musical numbers but for its many circus stunts.

For director Jessica Stone (click here to read about her), aided by circus choreographer Shana Carroll, has mixed together traditional stage actors and circus performers. All of them gamely—and fairly competently—take on the skills of the other, with acrobats singing and dancing and actors swinging on trapezes (click here see some of how that's done)

It could just be me but there are moments when there is so much happening onstage that it’s hard to know where to look and too often the meaning of lyrics are missed because you’re too busy gaping at some acrobat doing a handstand on the head of another.

Which brings us to the music. Both shows have brought in composers who are Broadway novices. The singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her friend Waitress composer Sara Bareilles, has written a tuneful score for The Notebook but it’s so heavy on ballads that the production is selling souvenir Kleenex (click here to read about that). 

Meanwhile the Pigpen Theatre Company, a collective of seven singer-songwriters, has come up with a patchwork of songs for Water for Elephants that range from slinky Kander & Ebb-style vamps to hoedown knee-slappers, with a couple of plaintive ballads thrown in for good measure. Some of the tunes are pleasant and they’re all well sung but they don’t add up to a truly cohesive score.

Still, both The Notebook and Water for Elephants have drawn surprisingly positive reviews, with the critics somewhat divided on which of the shows is better. Although Water for Elephants may hold a slight advantage. It’s got a happier ending. And it’s got puppets (the full-sized one for the titular floppy-eared pachyderm really delights the crowd). And it’s got all of that circus stuff. 

As I said earlier, I’m not big on juggling and acrobatics. I’m just too nervous that something or someone will fall. Still even I have to admit that a number in which the aerial artist Antoine Boissereau brings to life the final moments of a dying horse in Water for Elephants was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in the theater. Plus it was nice to see those old guys again too.




No comments: