Just in time for dry January the wettest musical of the season, Days of Wine and Roses, opened on Broadway.
On January 28, as so many New Yorkers, committing to the new year’s resolutions were doing their best to give booze a break, Joe Clay (Brian D’Arcy James) and Kirsten Arnesen (Kelli O’Hara) were careening full speed ahead down a liquor-laced path of destruction on a theater stage that once housed Studio 54, a club that infamously embraced excess as a philosophy of life. My how times have changed.
And oh! What a fine line it is between not drinking and polishing off the bottle. Or several as it were for Kirsten, the 1950s secretary who works in the same San Francisco public relations firm as Joe. One night at a client event, the two connect with one another.
Initially, Kirsten rebuffs the smooth-talking executive and his offer to get her a cocktail, “I don’t like the taste,” she tells him. “The taste? ” he questions. “It’s for the fun.” Quickly he wins her over and the pair ditch the clients for a restaurant.
After confessing a “nuttiness for chocolate”, Joe slyly has the waiter bring a Brandy Alexander, a sweet libation comprised of cognac, crème de cacao, and fresh cream. In moments, she is carefree and giddy and the two frolic along the river.
It doesn’t take a psychic to grasp where the story is headed. After settling down and having a child, the pair’s frequent happy hours turn into long unhappy days, unemployment for Joe, and life-threatening incidents for Kirsten, who has developed a yen for vodka vacuuming.
Eventually, the family is forced to live with Kirsten’s curmudgeonly father who is still grieving the loss of his wife. Stage legend Byron Jennings tackles the role and infuses what could be a rather unlikeable character with glimpses of humanity and pain.
Music and Lyricist Adam Guettel and book writer Craig Lucas have collaborated again after teaming in 2005 for the multiple award-winning Broadway musical The Light in the Piazza.
This time, they’ve adapted Days of Wine and Roses from a 1958 play by JP Miller and a subsequent film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. The film has been preserved in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
While the musical treatment may not reach such status, the story has undeniably touched lives and has forced many to confront and seek help for their own disease of alcoholism. Days of Wine and Roses reinforces the fact that excessive drinking is not a moral failure.
Upon seeking help, Joe’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor Jim (David Jenning) explains. “You wouldn’t tell a diabetic they can’t handle their sugar because they have some character flaw. If you’re like me — and you are — you’re a big ole drunk, Joe. We can never drink. Join the party and celebrate! We never have to drink again! That’s the good news.”
Good news is hard to find in Days of Wine and Roses, but the painfully heartbreaking tale is one of poignancy, richness, and beauty. This show marks another reunion for James and O’Hara, who shared the Broadway stage in another bleak tuner, Sweet Smell of Success.
Their chemistry is remarkable and through all of their pain and suffering, their commitment to one another is inspiring to watch. Also admirable is their ability to play drunkards. Too often, depictions are unrealistic and over-acted. Yet both do a fine job of showing the insidious way alcoholics range from comical and giddy to tragic and dangerous.
It’s unlikely anyone will leave humming anything from the score. Unlike his grandfather, the late Richard Rodgers, Guettel opts more for a more highbrow, contemporary classical approach that feels more technical than emotional.
Sometimes it works, elicting jazzy and jaunty notes, but more often than not the cacophony and dissonance feel as though it were written to impress an Ivy League Music theory professor. Metaphorically, it makes sense given the scrambled, blurry thinking of our leading lovers. Aurally however, it’s not terribly pleasing.
For Guettel, there is personal relation to the material. The composer has openly shared his struggles with addiction. In a 2003 interview with The New York Times, he said, “I’ve risked my life so many times now, in cars where I can barely see, doing cocaine and drinking and driving. And it’s never over. Because it’s not just a disease; it’s me, it’s knowing how much I could do if I kept it together, if I had the courage and stamina and willpower!”
Lucas’ book delves into the past of Joe and Kirsten, leading us to believe that they are alcoholics due to unresolved trauma and childhood issues. Perhaps that is true, but his greater point — without proselytizing or moralizing — is that regardless of one’s station in life, alcohol can be an equal opportunity destroyer for those chemically predisposed to it. But help is available to the willing.
Lizzie Clachan’s scenic design, lit with foreboding hues of bleakness, adds depth to this sad tale. Director Michael Greif holds the piece with a steady hand, grounding it in harsh reality and ensuring that it never veers into melodramatic territory.
Days of Wine and Roses is certainly adult fare, free from the frivolous and lightheartedness components that often comprise American Music Theater. For those who value story and fine acting over kicklines and jazz hands, it’s a fine pick.
Days of Wine and Roses plays through April 28 at Studio 54 Theatre, 254 West 54th St. in New York City. Tickets are $78 to $265. Visit www.daysofwineandrosesbroadway.com.
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