'Days of Wine and Roses' review — cheers to Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara's talent

Read our review of Days of Wine and Roses, the new musical written by The Light in the Piazza creators Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, on through July 16.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

The return of Adam Guettel with the new musical Days of Wine and Roses is a cheers-worthy event. All the more so since the composer/lyricist has reunited with The Light in the Piazza writer Craig Lucas and star Kelli O’Hara.

Based on a 1958 play and 1962 film adaption that share the same name, the Atlantic Theater Company production traces two married alcoholics who drink themselves into oblivion. Only one of them manages to put down the bottle. Six decades later, that outcome still stings.

But on stage, Days of Wine and Roses ends up easier to respect for its ambition, and O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James's stellar work, than to wholeheartedly recommend. The show fails to convince this is a story that sings.

In 1950 New York City, Korean War vet Joe Clay (James) works in public relations, and he’s good at his job — even the unsavory bits. That includes procuring women to entertain clients at business events. After a few drinks, he mistakes Kirsten Arnesen (O’Hara), his boss’s secretary, for one of these party girls. She sets him straight.

It’s a meet-awkward, not meet-cute. But it plants the seed for their relationship to bloom. From the jump, booze is front and center. Joe drinks and doesn’t like doing it alone. Kirsten is a teetotaler. “I never have,” she says. “I don’t like the taste.” He asks, “What do you like?” Her answer – chocolate – changes both their lives.

He serves her a Brandy Alexander, a dessert cocktail that goes down sweet and easy. She likes it. A lot. Soon she’s graduated — if that’s the right word — to Johnny Walker, champagne, and margaritas. In a bouncy but unsettling number, they sing: “Two dolphins breakin’ a wave, two dolphins right to the grave are we.”

Joe and Kirsten’s romance is its own whirlwind. They date, get married, and have a baby, Lila (Ella Dane Morgan), who’s 7 years old before you know it in Lucas’s adaptation. Scenes shift seamlessly on a set of sliding and twirling glass doors and mobile set pieces in the staging by director Michael Greif (Next to Normal).

The whole time, Joe and Kirsten drink like fishes, which may explain all of the water imagery. She can’t even vacuum their apartment without getting tipsy. Eventually, the descent into booze leads to career repercussions and, thanks to a lit cigarette, a catastrophe at home. Kirsten’s stern father (Byron Jennings) blames Joe for getting his daughter hooked.

The couple’s vows and efforts to stop drinking work – until they don’t. When one gets sober, the other pulls the other back to the bottle in a truly vicious cycle. Lila sees everything. Joe and Kirsten can’t be together unless they’re both not drinking — and that’s a long shot.

Guettel’s Tony-winning score for Piazza was shot through with romance and memorable melodies. His work here is gritty, sometimes jazzy, often operatic and soaring. Songs are more fragmentary and abstract and, ultimately, come and go without much impact. Despite some moving moments, Days of Wine and Roses is a downbeat musical cocktail that doesn’t expand or enhance the source material.

That’s no reflection on O’Hara and James, who do 99% of the singing, with Morgan shouldering the other 1%. Other characters in the show fill the frame but don’t sing.

James hits all the right notes as Joe goes from slick and debonair PR pro to a desperate husband and father seeing his life slipping from him. O’Hara’s voice soars; if music reflects inner feelings, this secretary is in intense turmoil. Beyond her vocals, O’Hara’s assured and powerful acting really impresses.

Days of Wine and Roses is at the Linda Gross Theater until July 16. Get Days of Wine and Roses tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James in Days of Wine and Roses. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)

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