Review: Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James Tear Our Hearts Out in Days of Wine and Roses

A Broadway-sized version of this new musical retains its unique brand of torment.

0257r Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara (photo by Joan Marcus)
Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara in Days of Wine and Roses at Studio 54
(© Joan Marcus)

In an increasingly commercial Broadway sector — and in a season where it seems like audiences just aren’t into what’s being provided — is there room for a weird little art musical about alcoholism? That’s the question the producers of Days of Wine and Roses are probably asking themselves. Running at the cavernous Studio 54 after a summer 2023 engagement at the far smaller Atlantic Theater Company, this new musical from The Light in the Piazza scribes Adam Guettel (score) and Craig Lucas (book) is banking on its chief assets — a pair of gut-wrenching performances of a lifetime from stars Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James — to make it through the dark days of winter. And they certainly deliver.

Based on the 1962 Blake Edwards film and its preceding Playhouse 90 teleplay by J.P. Miller, Days of Wine and Roses is the story of a couple in the 1950s whose relationship is built on and destroyed by their mutual addiction to the bottle. Joe Clay (d’Arcy James) is a corporate PR man, for whom boozy all-nighters are all part of a day’s work. When he and secretary Kirsten Arnesen (O’Hara) start dating, she abandons her teetotaler tendencies at his encouragement, and they fall down the rabbit hole together.

Fast-forwarding through different points in their codependency, Lucas charts the couple’s mutual destruction and paints a heartbreaking portrait of how difficult it is to right your own ship. Joe and Kirsten have a daughter (Tabitha Lawing as the headstrong Lila) who basically must raise herself because her parents are too inebriated to pay attention. Kirsten gets so drunk one night that she falls asleep smoking and burns down their apartment. Joe’s sloppiness at work leads to his demotion and eventual firing, all before he destroys the greenhouse that belongs to his father-in-law (Byron Jennings, mixing anger and anguish). Eventually — and with the help of a sponsor (David Jennings, no relation to Byron but just as good) — Joe realizes it’s time to seek help. But Kirsten, bitter about losing her drinking buddy, disappears.

It’s not what I would call a “feel good” musical, but it has become a “feel everything” musical in its Broadway-sized edition. Not much is different materially or scenically, but with less cramped quarters on a larger stage, everything about Michael Greif’s stark and striking production just breathes better. I still think the book lacks a few additional moments of revelation, so we don’t just move on from the tentpole plot points (the show runs a breakneck 105 minutes without intermission), but Lucas takes excellent care in making sure there is compassion within these sad sack characters, and that the dialogue never falls into afternoon-special territory. He and Guettel have written a blisteringly realistic portrait of addiction that will hit home for a lot of people. (Also, I don’t know if his script is funnier than I remembered, or if he mercifully added some jokes, but there’s finally some much-needed levity mixed in among the ruins.)

Guettel’s serrated musical language is still the most shocking and exciting part of Days of Wine and Roses. A saw-toothed score with orchestrations by the composer and Jamie Lawrence that conjure the era of three-martini lunches, Guettel’s songs start suddenly and end unexpectedly, making it feel like Joe and Kirsten are dancing as fast as they can — the disorienting tempo of “Evanesce” captures the effect of inebriation as they struggle to catch up. A late ballad titled “Forgiveness” sits at the very highest points of d’Arcy James and O’Hara’s ranges, evocatively capturing their strained emotions and desire to attain the unattainable. He otherwise writes the show in their vocal sweet spots, and you can tell by how comfortable they sound performing this difficult, bespoke material. They’ll rip your heart out, show it to you, and you’ll beg for more. They were the best they’ve ever been last summer, and they’re even more virtuosic now.

The design sets the scene just as successfully. Dede Ayite’s costumes — slate-gray suits and pink house dresses — look like they’ve been ripped from an old catalogue, and they conjure the period as effectively as Ben Stanton’s neo-noir lighting. Lizzie Clachan’s pitch-black set, now with the opportunity to expand from the recesses of the stage (and with a few handy dropdowns), complements the visual and sonic tone (so does Kai Harada’s sound design, which is mostly crystal clear, if at times a little muddy).

Will Days of Wine and Roses find a home in a thousand-seat house? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. I hope it does. Depressing and harrowing as it is, it’s not the kind of show we often get around these parts. Its success would signal that there is indeed still an audience for weird art amid the singing lions and flying witches. That would be the most hopeful takeaway of all.

0069r Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara (photo by Joan Marcus)
Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara in Days of Wine and Roses at Studio 54
(© Joan Marcus)

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Days of Wine and Roses

Final performance: April 28, 2024