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Within weeks of each other, two musicals arrived on Broadway, both based on bestselling romantic novels that were also box office hits with big Hollywood actors: “The Notebook”, based on Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 novel and later the 2004 popular movie with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, and “Water for Elephants”, based on Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel and later the film starring Robert Pattison and Reese Witherspoon. The new musicals share more: their stories present as memory plays.

“The Notebook” opens in a nursing home with an elderly man, Noah, (played by Dorian Harewood) reading to Allie, his wife, (Maryann Plunkett), afflicted with dementia, a story about a lifelong love affair. The setting is South Carolina in the 1960s. (In the book it's the 1940s.) Noah and Allie are teenagers: Noah is from hard-tack working class; he’ll take over his dad’s hardware store. Allie’s background is privileged; she has artistic aspirations (painting) and is college-bound, Her wealthy parents’ disapproval of her relationship with Noah prevails. Noah goes off to fight in Vietnam. Years later, Noah and Allie meet again. Allie leaves her fiance and the comfortable life planned for her for Noah; her painting (her true self) reemerges. They live happily ever after until old age denies Allie of beautiful memories of their life together. Noah’s last wish is that Allie recognizes him again.

The premise of "The Notebook" is, by definition, melodramatic. The book for the musical is by Bekah Brunstetter, whose claim to fame, as writer/producer, is the hugely successful melodramatic NBC television series “This is Us”. Brunstetter and “The Notebook” are a perfect fit, if this kind of melodrama is your cup of tea.

In this musical version, besides the elderly, there are two other pairs of Noah and Allie - as adults in their prime (Ryan Vasquez and Joy Woods) and as teenagers (John Cardoza and Jordan Tyson). We get used to the back and forth between the trio of couples readily enough; the device makes for more featured players to perform the score’s almost two dozen songs, with music and lyrics by recording artist Ingrid Michaelson. Her genre is mostly folk, which suits the mise-en-scene, although I couldn't recall a melody or motif floating around anywhere throughout any of the performance.

The highpoint of “The Notebook” is the spectacle of the rain scene from the movie, faithfully re-staged by directors Michael Greif and Schele Williams, where reunited lovers express their rediscovered romantic love and sexual desires in a thunderstorm. This scene isn't particularly erotic on stage, even though Noah and Allie get fully drenched, and audience members in the first couple of rows splashed on, too.

The cast is fine, but the standout of the six major players is Mary Ann Plunkett, as the elderly Allie. Given her affliction, hers is the most memorable and sympathetic role: she deftly handles the part with a welcome low-key manner. The tear-jerk conclusion comes as no surprise. Based on the degree of silent sobbing and Kleenex reached for, it pleases the audience immensely.

Spectacle is the major asset of “Water for Elephants”, which takes place, mostly, in an old-fashioned circus. Like the “The Notebook”, it begins in a nursing home from which an elderly and widowed Jacob Jankowski (a pitch perfect Gregg Edelman) escapes to the circus that’s come to town. There he retells his coming-of-age tale as an orphaned teenager (winsomely played by Grant Gustin) . Jacob has lost both parents tragically. It’s the Depression. He hobos onto a circus boxcar. His school of hard knocks is circus life. Jacob’s dad was a vet, and as his apprentice, Jacob developed a way with animals. After carrying water for elephants - a metaphor for the most endless and thankless job in the circus - he tends to the horse of the featured horse-rider performer, the lovely Marlena (Isabelle McCalla). She’s involved in an abusive relationship with the irascible but charming ringmaster and circus owner August (Paul Alexander Nolan). Sparks fly between Jacob and Marlena; we know where this is going.

The book by the accomplished Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”, “Addams Family”, ”Peter and the Starcatcher”, etc) tries to avert bookishness, but has to accommodate some grizzly turns in Gruen’s original novel. Elice is really skilled in three-dimensionalizing supporting players like the troubled circus barker Wade (Wade McCollum), the soulful Black circus-hand Camel who drinks too much (Stan Brown) and not-so-happy-go-lucky circus clown Walter (Joe de Paul).

The score by the team of Pigpen Theatre Co. is oddly - but appropriately - composed by committee. Lots of genres get used aptly: bluegrass for the circus hands’ songs, ballads for the lovers Jacob and Marlena, and big brassy show tunes for the circus numbers. “The Grand Spec”, which closes the first act, is the best production number.

Funnily, it’s director Jessica Stone who celebrates the spectacle, after the spare, almost esthete, nature of her last directing project, last year’s small, hit musical "Kimberly Akimbo”. In this show, a huge ensemble totals almost two dozen performers, the core of which are not only dancers but also acrobats. At times it’s as if “Water for Elephants” is a mini-Cirque Du-Soleil. Adroitly, director Stone, along with choreographers Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (also credited with circus design), integrates dance, acrobatics, and scene changes with amazing effect. The puppetry design of Ray Wetmore and Jr Goodman of circus animals is amazing, too, recalling both “Warhorse” and “The Lion King”.

Although it might sound peculiar, the spectacular highlight of “Water for Elephants” is the euthanasia of Marlena’s beloved horse. Its dramatization, which combines puppetry and aerial silk acrobatics, conjures the wide-eyed wonder and magic that childhood circus dreams are made of.


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