Days of Wine and Roses is most familiar to many as either an intense television drama shown on the 1958 anthology series Playhouse 90 or as an equally harrowing 1962 film, both written by dramatist JP Miller.
Now it has been brought to the stage in an emotional, glorious adaptation by playwright Craig Lucas. Lucas’ version retains all the power and tragedy of the original versions, made even more powerful by the addition of music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza). The result is a quick-moving, gripping story of a love shattered by alcoholism, and the story and score, with Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara delivering career-defining performances, make this a must-see production.
The story begins at an after-hours business party in the 1950s in a Manhattan bar hosted by ambitious public-relations man Joe Clay (d’Arcy James), where he gets acquainted with secretary Kirsten Arnesen (O’Hara). Alcohol fuels Clay’s enjoyment of the evening, and he gets Arnesen to take her first alcoholic drink ever. As their relationship blooms, drinking becomes a strong part of their bond, with Kirsten more and more dependent on the exhilaration she feels from alcohol.
The pair soon marry, to the disapproval of Kirsten’s commercial flower-growing father (Byron Jennings), and have a daughter, Lila (Tabitha Lawing). Periods of sobriety do not last long under Joe’s long-distance business demands and Kirsten’s domestic solitude and boredom. The collapse of Joe’s career and a near-disastrous apartment fire send the Clay family to Arnesen’s farm, but the couple’s new sobriety disintegrates in an alcohol-fueled late-night revel. When Joe starts attending sobriety meetings with his sponsor Jim (David Jennings), Kirsten refuses to consider herself one of “those people”.
Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara are magnificent. Their on-stage chemistry makes you believe that Joe and Kirsten truly love each other, even as alcohol slowly ruins their lives. Interestingly, nearly the entire score of Days of Wine and Roses is sung by d’Arcy James and O’Hara’s characters. Their big ballad, “As the Water Loves the Stone”, displays their deep and abiding affection and belief that neither can fully exist without the other — until you realize that water, no matter how much it loves stone, ends up eroding it. Their love for their daughter is conveyed by Kirsten’s Norwegian lullaby to the newborn Lila, “Sammen I Himmelen” (“Together in Heaven”), which is reprised by Joe as a bedtime prayer with an older Lila. Separately sung by Joe and Kirsten, the song “Forgiveness” shows their hopes for what sobriety could bring.
The rest of the cast rises to the levels set by the two leads. Byron Jennings’ Arnesen and David Jennings’ (no relation) Jim show the effect of Joe and Kirsten’s condition on others — Arnesen’s pragmatic, suspicious view of Joe and his resentment of Kirsten’s non-sobriety; Jim’s “been there, seen that” understanding of what Joe’s going through. Tabitha Lawing’s Broadway debut as Lila shows us the child who loves both her parents while not fully understanding their problem, becoming matter-of-factly self-sufficient. Lawing shows great promise in her future career, never allowing Lila to become the cliche of one of those know-it-all sophisticated children of modern day TV and movies.
Also outstanding is the scenic design of Lizzie Clachan, aided by the lighting designs of Ben Stanton and the sound designs of Kai Harada. Together, they create lower Manhattan waterfronts, upscale offices and apartments, Arnesen’s greenhouse, a sleazy motel, and all the other locations called for by the story. Costume designer Dede Ayite uses her talents to visually enforce the steady decline of Kirsten and Joe, and provides the appropriate looks for all the other characters. Kimberly Grigsby leads an above-the-stage orchestra that is more than a match for the demands of Guettel’s eclectic score.
Originally produced by off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, Days of Wine and Roses has successfully made the move to the Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54. The larger space is filled with the exciting score and taut story, skillfully directed by Michael Greif with choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia.
You may think, having seen previous incarnations, that Days of Wine and Roses has nothing new to show you. You would be wrong. Days of Wine and Roses in its incarnation as a musical presents a fresh view of this essentially tragic story — and it is one that audiences will be talking about for years to come. You owe it to yourself to make the trip up to West 54th Street for Days of Wine and Roses before its limited engagement ends. It is magnificent. It is musical drama at its finest. I cannot urge you more strongly to see it.
Days of Wine and Roses is presented by the Atlantic Theater Company in association with the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street in New York through April 28, 2024. For more information, go to daysofwineandrosesbroadway.com. To purchase tickets, go to criterionticketing.com or call 833-274-8497.