Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 28, 2024
Days of Wine and Roses. Book by Craig Lucas. Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Based on the play by JP Miller and the Warner Bros. film Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia. Scenic design by Lizzie Clachan. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Sound design by Kai Harada. Hair and wig design by David Brian Brown . Orchestrations by Adam Guettel and Jamie Lawrence. Music direction by Kimberly Grigsby.
Based on JP Miller's 1958 teleplay and 1962 film of the same title, Days of Wine and Roses tells the story of two lost and damaged people who meet cute and fall head-over-heels in love, both with each other and, sadly, with the soul-destroying demon of alcohol addiction.
The movie version of the story received five Oscar nominations, including ones for Best Actor and Best Actress for its stars, Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. And while the art of predicting Tony nominations is often a futile endeavor, certainly O'Hara and James should be considered top contenders for their singing alone; in that respect they carry the 145-minute intermissionless show on their mighty shoulders and vocal cords. Literally, because with one sole exception, they are the only ones who sing the 18 numbers (including reprises) that make up Adam Guettel's jazzy, soaring, stirring, and altogether sublime score.
But what has always been true of their singing has reached a new level of excellence with their acting as well, under Michael Greif's well-considered direction. In that, the overall production is aided in no small way by the thoughtfully reconfigured setting (by Lizzie Clachan), moody lighting (by Ben Stanton), the all-important sound design (by Kai Harada), Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia's well-suited choreography, and the perfect costumes (by Dede Ayite), with everything evocative of the early 1950s era of the three-martini lunch, when casual workplace acquaintances Kirsten (O'Hara) and Joe (James) connect during a business celebration aboard a yacht moored on New York's East River.
Their romance begins with some light banter that soon segues into a lengthy getting-to-know-you dinner date during which Joe, already a heavy drinker himself, introduces Kirsten, a confessed chocoholic, to a tasty dessert cocktail known as a Brandy Alexander. Kirsten, a teetotaler out of habit rather than conviction, finds she rather likes it, and before you know it, "Magic Time," as Joe calls it, becomes a regular part of their lives. From then on, it is, indeed, "wine and roses" that define their relationship as they marry, have a child (Tabitha Lawing, who gets to show off a bit of singing prowess in her own right), and descend precipitously down the road to perdition where "social drinking" turns into just plain frequent and serious drinking, and Brandy Alexanders make way for whatever is handy and does the trick.
In the earlier Off-Broadway production, the show's plot (with a book by Craig Lucas, who previously collaborated with Guettel on the adaptation of The Light in the Piazza) unfolded like a series of quickly displayed photographs. Zip, Kirsten and Joe meet. Zip, they fall in love. Zip, they marry. Zip, they have a child. Zip, all hell breaks loose. But now, in just a matter of a few weeks, the director and the stars have taken the time to dig deeply into two things of significance that were not readily in evidence previously, underplayed even if they were scripted.
One of these is the characters' back stories, something to at least suggest why they were prone to addiction. We're given some sense of who Joe is, a Korean War veteran disinclined to talk about what was clearly a difficult chapter of his life (during one destructive outburst, he suffers a flashback). We are less certain of Kirsten's story, though she does give some hints about her life growing up under the tight grip of her Norwegian parents, and we do get to spend time with her taciturn if loving father (Byron Jennings, giving the show's third richly realized performance).
It is Kirsten's descent into the abyss that is the most compelling element of the show, and O'Hara has shaped her portrayal in a way that is suggestive of someone with bipolar disorder, with hyper highs and plummeting lows that leave her ultimate fate in question to the very end.
More significantly, given that both Joe and Kirsten are able to put on great displays of superficial wit and charm, the performances take us underneath the masks so that we are allowed to see the alcohol-triggered ugly side of their personalities: selfishness, anger, anarchy, self-destructiveness, and even violence. Alcoholism is a jealous lover and demands full obedience of its victims. An AA sponsor like the character of Jim (David Jennings) can do little more than offer support for those who are willing to reach out for it, and we can do little more than bear witness to this sad tale of upended lives, impeccably portrayed by a pair of Broadway's brightest lights.