Feel-bad musical adaptation of ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ at Broadway’s Studio 54 hits all the right notes of alcohol addiction in the mid-century

Following its critically acclaimed sold-out Off-Broadway run at Atlantic Theater Company in 2023, Days of Wine and Roses has opened on Broadway for a limited 16-week engagement at Studio 54. Adapted from JP Miller’s 1962 film (with Oscar-winning music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Johnny Mercer) and original 1958 teleplay of the same name, the new musical, here set in NYC in the 1950s, marks the first reunion of its creators Craig Lucas (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) since their collaboration on The Light in the Piazza, which made its Broadway debut in 2005.

Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Those familiar with the story will know that this is not your usual feel-good musical. The dark, depressing, and dated mid-century classic (which, with this, has made the transition to a period piece) recounts the downward spiral of a couple that meets at an open-bar work party on a yacht, falls in love with each other and over-imbibing (she was previously a chocolate-loving nondrinker, until he slyly ordered her a Brandy Alexander on their first encounter to bring her into his drunken world), then struggles with alcohol addiction and its devastating impact on their lives, relationship, and family.

Directed by Michael Greif, stars Kelli O’Hara as secretary Kirsten Arnesen and Brian d’Arcy James as PR exec Joe Clay capture the decline of their compulsive characters and addictive personalities (like him, she also becomes a heavy smoker), in tour-de-force performances that are sure to garner multiple award nominations (as the spot-on production will in virtually every category), as they transition from the euphoria induced by love and liquor to the damage it causes. They stagger, slur, and fall, explode with anger, gratify themselves with dissipated sex, and entice each other to resume drinking after brief periods of abstinence, while forsaking their jobs, exasperating her father (the no-nonsense Byron Jennings), who takes an instant dislike to Joe upon being awakened by their late-night arrival to announce their sudden marriage, and too often leaving their young daughter Lila (played with strength and hope beyond her years by the irresistible Tabitha Lawing) to care for herself.

Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara. Photo by Joan Marcus.

They also bring their masterful voices to eighteen musical numbers (with the talented Lawing joining them in duets on three) that intermingle with the dialogue, advance the plot, and reveal their thoughts and emotions, flawlessly delivering Guettel’s challenging original compositions in the authentic period style of modern jazz, eliminating regular tempos and melodies, and including some inebriated scatting, soaring powerhouse long notes, and segments of vintage dance (choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia). Their rousing and emotive vocals are backed by a simpatico nine-piece band (with music direction by conductor Kimberly Grigsby and orchestrations by Guettel and Jamie Lawrence).

Rounding out the supporting non-singing cast is David Jennings as Joe’s helpful and encouraging but discerning AA sponsor Jim, with Sharon Catherine Brown, Tony Carlin, Bill English, Olivia Hernandez, and David Manis in multiple minor roles.

Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The stellar performances are enhanced by a transporting artistic design that recreates the look of the era and illustrates the decline of the characters, in costumes by Dede Ayite that range from the standard business attire of suits, white shirts, and ties for the men, fitted tea, princess, and cocktail dresses for the women, and disheveled robes and nightwear for the hard-drinking couple, with corresponding hair and wigs by David Brian Brown. Kai Harada’s sound takes us from the traffic of the city to the lapping waves and sirens that sound and respond to an accidental fire set off by a passed-out Kirsten, and Lizzie Clachan’s set transitions fluidly from the bright lights and neon signs of the streets of New York, to the yacht party where they meet, the couple’s apartments, with at first upscale then more modest mid-century modern furnishings and well-stocked bars, her father’s home and greenhouse, destroyed by Joe in his search for another bottle of booze, and the seedy motel room where his wife takes refuge from her husband’s new-found sobriety. It all takes place before a backdrop of vertical window panels that change colors with the moods, and under the dramatic spotlighting of the figures in the darkness, in Ben Stanton’s evocative lighting design.

While the story and characters of Days of Wine and Roses feel outdated and its selection for adaptation as a musical seems to me a dismal choice, there is no doubt about the quality of the production and its performances, which never fail to impress. And it delivers a sober warning about the dangers of alcohol in the past – with themed specialty cocktails inspired by the show available for the current audience at the theater’s bar.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.

Days of Wine and Roses plays through Sunday, April 28, 2024, at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $68-298, including fees), call (833) 274-8497, or go online.

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