'Days of Wine and Roses' review — Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James give career-best performances
Read our four-star review of the new musical Days of Wine and Roses on Broadway, an adaptation of the 1962 film that premiered off Broadway in summer 2023.
"They are not long, the days of wine and roses," wrote Ernest Dowson in an 1896 poem that later lent the phrase to a 1958 teleplay, 1962 film, and now, their Broadway musical adaptation. Translation: Life's best times are fleeting. A case in point is the 16-week stint when the talents of actors Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James (both multi-Tony nominees giving career-best performances) and writers Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas (premiering their first new Broadway show since 2005's The Light in the Piazza) are all on one stage.
Since its Off-Broadway premiere in 2023, the Days of Wine and Roses musical, featuring largely the same company, has aged like, well, wine. The story begins light and sweet before quickly revealing heavier notes: Kirsten loves Joe; Joe loves Kirsten. Joe also loves liquor. Before long, former teetotaler Kirsten loves liquor, too, in part because she grows to believe Joe will only love her if she does.
The gut-wrenching tragedy of Days of Wine and Roses is watching that dynamic slowly reverse: When Joe finally manages to claw his way up onto the wagon, Kirsten seeks to pull him back down to drown with her at the bottom of the bottle.
Water imagery is constant in the musical, showing how completely drink engulfs Joe and Kirsten's lives. (Notably, the house of Kirsten's father, a reliably sobering presence as played by Byron Jennings, is the one place absent of the motif — the couple and their daughter, Lila, regularly visit there as a sort of rehab.) No metaphor is better than that of the standout song "As the Water Loves the Stone," a sweet ballad until you remember that the caress of water erodes stone. The implication is clear: Joe and Kirsten are eating away at each other drop by drop.
In less skilled hands, these flawed characters could push the audience away or else flatten into scapegoats. But James and O'Hara don't let that happen for a second. O'Hara's Kirsten contains multitudes beneath a sheltered, sunny air, including a zeal for what her favorite books describe as "the human desire penetrate the unknown" — like the world of booze. James's Joe is magnetic such that when he trades his drunken aggressiveness for tenderness, we immediately root for him again. James and O'Hara's sparkling chemistry is effortless, entirely convincing us of their deep love even in their darkest moments — and those moments become all the more arresting as a result.
The perfect pair also saves the show from its weak spots; namely, Guettel's lyrics that wash over the ears and leave little aftertaste, more than once failing to convince that they express emotions big enough for song. As a result, though, I was more closely attuned to Lucas's book, economical but quietly well-crafted, and Guettel's score, lilting and (in keeping with the water theme) regularly nautical.
While Days certainly doesn't go down easy, it's energizing to see a Broadway show, including director Michael Greif, handle a mature theme like alcoholism with precision and compassion. Cheers to that.
Photo credit: Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine and Roses on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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