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Days of Wine and Roses

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 5, 2023

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
A dream of "sammen i himmelen" (together in heaven) turns into "sammen i helvete" (together in hell) for two alcoholics who bring out the best and the worst in each other in Days of Wine and Roses, opening tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. It is a sobering tale, to be sure, but for audiences at least, it is a heavenly opportunity to bask in a new score by Adam Guettel as performed by the golden-throated tenor Brian d'Arcy James and the sublime soprano Kelli O'Hara.

This adaptation of the 1962 film features a book by Craig Lucas, who previously collaborated with Guettel on The Light in the Piazza, in which O'Hara played the role of Clara. For that 2005 Broadway production, O'Hara was nominated for a Tony for her performance, while Guettel won for his complex, sophisticated, and often operatic score. That's the Guettel whose work suffuses Days of Wine and Roses, more of a chamber opera than a musical, dominated by soaring arias along with occasional melodic tunes and even toe-tapping jazz riffs that allow its stars (especially O'Hara) to vocally shine like a pair of polished gemstones.

For that, we are much blessed. Fingers crossed, we can hope for a recording to come out of this. What is less solid is the translation to the stage from JP Miller's original 1958 teleplay and later screenplay about a couple trapped in a downward spiral that takes them from social drinking into the depths of alcoholism. Without the addition of songs (other than the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer Academy Award-winning title theme), the film was able to focus deeply on the romance, marriage, and downfall of its central couple, Joe and Kirsten, the roles played in this new production by James and O'Hara.

Unfortunately, the musicalization comes at the price of the loss of complexity in the telling of the story. What we get is a series of choppy scenes, a succession of moments, like snapshots in a photo album covering a decade or so in the lives of the lead characters, from their first meeting to their diving descent and crash landing. Along the way, the couple has a child, Lila (nicely performed by Ella Dane Morgan, who gets to show off her own singing chops a couple of times), needing to be self-sufficient against her unpredictable parents. We also get to spend some time with Kirsten's anguished father (an excellent Byron Jennings), who blames Joe for his daughter's self-destruction. Another five performers appear in supporting roles.

With such a sad and tragic tale, what we miss is a much-needed depth in the unfolding of the plot. Things do seem to lose their way toward the end, following an emotional scene in a motel room, so that the last few minutes come across as an unnecessary denouement. Nevertheless, the performances themselves are well directed by Michael Greif, and the design elements are top-notch, from Lizzie Clachan's multi-purpose set design, to Dede Ayite's perfect 1950s period costumes, to Ben Stanton's moody lighting. Likewise, Adam Guettel's orchestrations sound terrific as performed by the small band under Kimberly Grigsby's direction. Above all, and despite the show's flaws, the score and James and O'Hara's singing guarantee a most memorable evening.

Days of Wine and Roses
Through July 16, 2023
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: