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The Notebook Has the Write Stuff at Chicago Shakespeare Theater



Take note of this:  The Notebook, a new musical based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks which inspired the popular film, is a solid hit you don’t want to miss.  If you go to the musical theater to have your heartstrings tugged, this stirring new production will be playing your tune for a long time.

John Cardoza and Jordan Tyson, Photo: Liz Lauren

Chicago theater in general is known for its honest, raw emotion and lack of frivolous embellishment. Broadway producers McCollum and Kurt Deutsch have wisely chosen to develop this show in conjunction with the tasteful artistic leadership at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, Creative Producer Rick Boynton and Casting Director Bob Mason have assembled a powerhouse creative team, lead by veteran Broadway director (Dear Evan Hansen) Michael Greif and co-director Schele Williams (Aida revival). Together, they have created a warm and glorious production that washes over the audience in a tidal wave of emotion. The Notebook sweeps the cheering audience to their feet long before the final notes of the show have sounded.

Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods, Jordan Tyson Photo: Liz Lauren

The Notebook tells the story of an aged couple in an elder care facility. Older Allie, depicted with achingly sad and funny desperation by Maryann Plunkett, is in the last stages of dementia. She is unable to recall the events of her own life without a special reminder. Older Noah, played with quiet sincerity by Jerome Harmann Hardeman, is her devoted husband. He spends his days desperately trying to throw a lifeline to Allie’s memory by reading to her daily from a written chronicle of their relationship.

John Cardoza, John Beasley, Ryan Vasquez, Photo: Liz Lauren

It should be mentioned that Mr. Hardeman is the understudy who has had to step in for John Beasley, who has been out with Covid for a couple weeks. Although I suspect that Mr. Beasley is a more powerful onstage presence, Mr. Hardeman, who I also saw in the role two weeks ago, has warmed into his role convincingly.

John Cardoza, Jordan Tyson, John Beasley, Maryann Plunkett, Ryan Vasquez, Joy Woods, Photo: Liz Lauren

As Older Noah recounts their story to Older Allie, we see them in flashback at two different phases of their relation, played by two different teams of young actors. As eighteen year old Younger Allie, the delightful Jordan Tyson meets the charming if impoverished Younger Noah, brought to life in a remarkable performance by John Cardoza. Our emotional commitment to the show really rides on the shoulders of this young couple; and this pair of touching performers power the production with their talent and chemistry.

Ms. Tyson is vulnerable, witty and passionate as Allie, with a powerhouse voice that fills the theater with joy.  Mr. Carodoza wins our hearts as well as hers with his seemingly effortless, self-effacing charm as Younger Noah. His glorious, soulful, tenor voice, crying with the heart of a lonesome coyote, and his boyish good looks, should make him a major pop star.  Move over, Josh Groban.  The heck with Harry Stiles!

The story follows their developing romance until Allie is torn from Noah by her protective parents.  Jonathan Butler-Duplessis does a fine job is a smaller role as Allie’s father. But a supporting actress Jefferson Award should go to Andrea Burns for her carefully delineated dual roles of Allie’s concerned mother and a staff worker in the senior facility. Also, kudos to Liam Oh for a smaller but pivotal dual role as Younger Nathan’s friend, Finn, and a physical therapist in the senior center.

Ten years go by before Allie can see Noah again. In that time, Noah has built a house which he still hopes to share with Allie.  In the interim, she has become engaged to a rising young lawyer, nicely depicted by Omar Lopez-Cepero. But when Allie and Noah meet again, it’s almost as if no time had passed.

Middle Noah, played by Ryan Vasquez, is also a fine baritenor, with a wonderfully natural air as an actor. His quiet, contained style lets him get big laughs from simple, honest moments. He is well matched by the beautiful and touching Joy Woods as as Middle Allie. She brings the house down with her big musical moment of decision, “My Days.”

The music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson throb with the passion  of youthful desire, at one point describing love as “almost like a hurricane.” Her lyrics are also tinged with a bit of rue for the pain as well as the pleasure of love, and lamenting of “the things we never had.”In a style more pop than musical theater, Ms. Michaelson repeats a lot of her lyrics in chorus.  But when Allie sings, “Kiss me on the neck, kiss me on the forehead, kiss me on the mouth, mouth, mouth” this repetition only serves to drive home her powerful emotional message.

The music is gorgeously orchestrated by John Clancy and Music Superviser Carmel Dean, who also did the luscious vocal arrangements with Ms. Michaelson.  The string driven orchestra is almost a character unto itself, under the baton of Music Director Geoffrey Ko.

Bookwriter Bekah Brunstetter, a three time Emmy nominee for This is Us, has created dialogue that is smart, touching, unforced, and funny in just the right way.  She gives the actors a solid ground on which to build their engaging performances.

Where there is room yet to grow and change here is in the lack of music for Older Noah and Older Allie.  In a musical, audiences engage with the emotional lives of the characters through song. But there seems to have been a tacit agreement within the creative team that old people don’t get to be that passionate musically. I think that was a mistake.

Older Allie gets only one memory song, which is actually sung to her by her two younger selves. Even if language  is slipping away from her along with her memory, that itself could be musicalized and given to Older Allie to sing.  When she finally gets to sing herself ( I won’t say why),  that moment almost excuses the lack of song earlier.

John Beasley, Maryann Plunkett Photo: Liz Lauren

Older Noah only gets to sing in an opening song, ‘Time”, which is largely expositional, and one other song later, “Iron in the Fridge”, which is the weakest song in the score musically.  He never gets to sing his passion for Ally directly.  Typically, characters break into song in a musical when the emotion of the dialogue becomes too much to be contained in speech. Older Noah has a moment like that in the first act, where he cries out, “I need her!”  If that isn’t a song cue, I don’t know what is. If the creative team thinks a feeble older man can’t sing a stirring song when he’s passionate about something, they need to re-watch “Man of La Mancha.”

At least the lack of vocal demand on Mr. Hardeman and Ms. Plunkett suit their very average singing voices. In a cast of stellar voices, that also calls some attention to itself. I would so like to see this again on Broadway with Betty Buckley and Brian Stokes Mitchell…and a couple powerful new songs for their characters.

The colorblind casting did take a little getting used to. But before long, I was willingly suspending my disbelief. Co-directors Michael Greif and Schele Williams, together with choreographer Katie Spelman,  (who also choreographed) keep all three couples beautifully intertwined, in a way that bridges their differences.

The moody and dimensional lighting by Ben Stanton and color coded costumes by Paloma Young very effectively blend the past and present, on a clean and simple unit set by David Zinn and Brett Banakis.  The warmth and intimacy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater itself contribute greatly to the overall emotional draw of the show.

Whether you identify with the hot flame of youthful passion or the smouldering ember of love which continues to glow in older couples, you are bound to be moved by The Notebook.  It has just been extended through October 30.  So take a romantic trip to Chicago, if you’re not already there, and get your tickets while you can.

The Notebook, now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, at Navy Pier through Oct. 30

Jeffery Lyle Segal is a multifaceted theater artist who has worn many professional hats. He started as a musical theater performer in his teens. He attended Stanford U., Northwestern University, and SUNY at Binghamton to study acting, directing and dramatic literature. He also wrote theater reviews for The Stanford Daily and was Arts Editor of WNUR Radio at Northwestern. After college, he is proud to have been the first full time Executive Director of Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater Company. He left them to work as a theater actor and director. His special effects makeup skills got him into the movies, working on the seminal cult horror film, Re-Animator.He also did casting for several important Chicago projects, sometimes wearing both production hats, as he did on Chicago’s most famous independent movie, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. While living in Los Angeles, he joined the Academy for New Musical Theater, where he developed two book musicals as a composer, lyricist and librettist, Down to Earth Girl (formerly I Come for Love, NYMF 2008), and Scandalous Behavior! (York Developmental Reading Series 2010). He wrote, produced and performed his song “Forever Mine” as the end title theme of the horror film, Trapped! He also has written songs for his performances in cabaret over the years, and the time he spent pursuing country music in Nashville. Most recently he created a musical revue, Mating the Musical, for the Chicago Musical Theater Festival 2016. In NYC, he has attended the BMI musical theater writers’ workshop, and the Commercial Theater Institute 14 week producer program. He is currently creating a company to develop new musicals online. He still keeps up his makeup chops, working with top doctors in NYC and Chicago as one of the country’s most highly regarded permanent cosmetic artists ( and as a member of Chicago local IATSE 476.


The Olivier Awards Return



Celebrate the very best in British theatre in a star-studded evening as the Olivier Awards return to the Royal Albert Hall on April 2nd.

Three-time Olivier Award nominee & Primetime Emmy winner, Hannah Waddingham will be hosting the awards for the first time.

The event will feature performances from all of the Best New Musical nominees, including The Band’s Visit, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Sylvia and Tammy Faye. Also performing will be Oklahoma! and Sister Act, both nominated for the Best Musical Revival award, as well as Disney’s Newsies, which has been nominated for Matt Cole’s choreography.

The multi-Olivier Award winner The Book of Mormon, will be performing to mark its ten-year anniversary in the West End. Additionally, special award winner Arlene Philips will be honored with a tribute from the cast of Grease.

The ceremony will be broadcast live on Magic Radio from 6pm with Ruthie Henshall and Alice Arnold hosting.

The highlights program will also be aired on ITV1 and ITVX at 10:15 pm in the UK and via Official London Theatre’s YouTube channel elsewhere.

And the nominees are:

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Out of Town

The Unpacking of the First Métis Man of Odesa, An Interview




Punctuate! Theatre is unpacking a love story. A love story about a couple. A love story about Ukraine. And a love story against an unbelievably complicated backdrop. Starting at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, the company is ushering forth the world premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa before it spins itself out on stages across Canada. Spanning continents and set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Métis playwright and Punctuate! Artistic Director, Matthew MacKenzie (Dora Award-winning playwright for Bears, After the Fire, The Particulars) joins forces with his wife, the award-winning Ukrainian actress Mariya Khomutova (Odesa Film Festival Grand Prix – The Golden Duke award-winner NONNATwo People), to tell the story of their COVID courtship and share an intimate perspective on the personal impacts of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova.

Drawn from their real-life love story, a story that is ultimately still unfolding to this very day, First Métis Man of Odesa unpacks the journey of Matt and Masha’s love that spans continents where distance and conflicts can’t tame their passionate connection. After meeting on a theatre research trip in Kyiv, a spark is struck, and a romance between a Métis Playwright and a Ukrainian artist is ignited, taking them from the beaches of the Black Sea to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, within the onset of a global pandemic, the eruption of a brutal war, but also the many joyous moments that this union begets, including marriage and the birth of their son.

During the height of the lockdown in 2021, an initial version of this piece was presented as a radio play at Factory Theatre, written by MacKenzie and directed by Nina Lee Aquino. This March, First Métis Man of Odesa, as directed by Lianna Makuch (Pyretic Productions/Punctuate!’s Barvinok), makes its stage debut, offering a compelling continuation of the initial story told in that first radio play. The couple, Matthew MacKenzie and his wife, Mariya Khomutova, sat down with Frontmezzjunkies and thankfully answered a few questions about their incredible journey from that first love-struck connection to its World Premiere at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.

Tell me, how you decided to embark on telling your own story and what the beginning of this creative process looked like for you two?

Initially, Matt wrote an audio play for Factory Theatre about our romance, then getting married and having their son during the pandemic.  The plan had been to expand the piece for the stage, a plan that took on much urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Both the pandemic and war have a deeply dehumanizing effect, so our hope in telling our love story is to share the human side of these major world events; a human side that headlines and news clips can’t fully capture.

What aspect of your character, or your involvement with/creation of this play resonates the most powerfully inside you?

For both of us, the opportunity to share all the joy, humour, anger, and frustration we’ve experienced in the past few years is a really therapeutic process.  Many of our friends and family only know snippets of what we’ve been through, so the opportunity to tell our story across the country is one we are deeply grateful for.

The phrase “you don’t know what someone is carrying with them” has really hit home over the past couple of years, as we have had to contend with some pretty epic challenges as a couple and as individuals.

Tell me a bit about what it is like to bring your character to the stage? What does mean to you to be telling this story?

We play ourselves in the play, but we very much play versions of ourselves in the play.  We had to mine conflict between us out of a few outbursts, as there haven’t actually been a lot of [conflicts] in our relationship so that we could bring the drama of what we are going through to the fore.

Challenges of playing ourselves have included the fact that [Matt] is not a trained actor, while Mariya is. Mariya though comes from a theatre tradition that was almost entirely focused on the classics, so playing herself in a play based on her life is definitely a new and challenging experience!

Tell me a bit more about your development process? Was there a typical ‘first read’ or was it different, given your own story inspired the work…

We were able to conduct several development workshops over a period of six months.  There was no shortage of content that we could derive from our lives, so the challenge was determining what to keep and what to let fall away. Even after our first read, we cut 15 pages from our rehearsal draft.  Events in our lives and in Ukraine will no doubt continue to necessitate the evolution of our script.

What’s been the most challenging part of this process for you?

For Mariya, it was buying into the idea (that is quite a common one in Canada) that a play about someone’s real life can be art.  Seeing Hailey Gillis’s My Ex-boyfriend Yard Sale, really helped her believe this was possible.

For Matt, it met the challenge of performing for the first time in ten years.  The last time he performed, he made his friends promise they would never let him perform again, but all agreed it didn’t make much sense for anyone else to play him in this piece.

The most rewarding?

Having already performed several shows in Kamloops, the most rewarding part of this process is sharing this story with refugees from Ukraine.  Their responses have been incredible and have really encouraged us to share our story with as many people as possible.

What do you want the audience to get from this play, and from your character?

We want the audience to join us as we relive our sweeping love story, from Odesa to Toronto.  We want the audience to see the human side of the conflict in Ukraine.  And we want the audience to leave the theatre with the hope that love can and will conquer all.

First Métis Man of Odesa is in Toronto for its world premiere run at the Franco Boni Theatre @ The Theatre Centre from March 30 – April 8, 2023 (opening March 31). Following the world premiere in Toronto, First Métis Man of Odesa will appear at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, The Cultch in Vancouver, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. For information and tickets, please visit

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Florence Welch, Martyna Majok, Rachel Chavkin and More On New Musical Gatsby Coming To A.R.T



Florence Welch Photo by De Wilde

Producers Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, Jordan Roth, and American Repertory Theater(A.R.T.) at Harvard University announced today that Gatsby, a brand-new musical stage adaptation of the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, will make its highly anticipated World Premiere at A.R.T. in 2024, and will be directed by Tony Award® winner Rachel Chavkin and choreographed by Tony Award winner Sonya Tayeh.

Rachel Chavkin Photo Credit Erik Tanner

Gatsby will feature music by Florence Welch, the Grammy Award-nominated international rock star of Florence + the Machine and Thomas Bartlett, the Oscar and Grammy Award nominee, with lyrics by Ms. Welch, and a book by Pulitzer Prize® winner Martyna Majok.

Martyna Majok by Josiah Bania

Gatsby will be produced at American Repertory Theater by special arrangement with Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, and Jordan Roth, in association with Robert Fox. Hannah Giannoulis serves as co-producer.

Sonya Tayeh

American Repertory Theater (Diane Paulus, Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director; Kelvin Dinkins, Jr., Executive Director) at Harvard University produces groundbreaking work to catalyze dialogue and transformation. Tony Award-winning and nominated productions include Jagged Little PillWaitressNatasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; All the Way; The Glass Menagerie; Pippin; Once; and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Its revival of 1776, a co-production with Roundabout Theatre Company, is currently touring nationally. Learn more at

Thomas Bartlett Photo Credit York Tillyer

Additional Gatsby news will be announced soon.

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