Days of Wine and Roses ‘Lifted Right Out of the 1950s’

Brian d’Arcy James (Joe) and Kelli O’Hara (Kirsten) (Credit: Ahron R. Foster)


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Based on the play by JP Miller and the Warner Bros. film of the same name, the new musical Days of Wine and Roses, playing at Atlantic Theater Company off-Broadway at the Linda Gross Theater at 336 W. 20th St. in New York City through July 16 is a brutally candid look at the destructive nature of alcoholism.

With a book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, the musical is directed by Michael Greif, and he and his team make a concerted effort to make Days of Wine and Roses feel like it was lifted right out of the 1950s, from Dede Ayite’s excellent costumes to the score that, though isn’t a literal lift of the casual some of the jazz styles of the time, it is colored with tones from that period, especially with Guettel’s prominent use of marimba and vibraphone. Think of the works of Lionel Hampton and Henry Mancini, but arranged with a 21st Century mind. It makes the music excitingly modern, but with a foot firmly set in the period the musical is set.

This mix of modern and classic creates a challenging score for the two leads Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara, as I would guess about half the songs don’t offer much assistance with the melody. 

But if you’re going to have a score with tricky jazzy harmonies where there is no melodic support, having two supremely talented singers like Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara is essential.

d’Arcy James plays Joe Clay, a hard drinking public relations rep for a high profile New York business. While on a business cruise he meets Kirsten Arnesen, played by O’Hara, who is a teetotaler.  It’s not exactly clear, but it reminds me of one of those booze cruises that treks around the south end of Manhattan.

After some persistence, Joe gets Kirsten to have her first drink and the two quickly become lovers.

They also quickly become alcoholics together and their entire relationship becomes dependent on their drinking to be happy. 

Though I admire the message Days of Wine and Roses makes, the musical’s efforts to maintain a sense of period carries a bit too far as I feel that the story is very heavy handed. It almost sometimes feels like an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous from the 1950s. Not that promoting A.A. is a bad thing, and I do hope this show does help people who come see it discover their own alcohol problems. I just wish that I didn’t feel like I just got slapped across the head by a copy of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Though there is the handicap of having to act with such an aggressive book, Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara commit to it and give deeply moving performances. O’Hara’s Kirsten’s descent into alcoholism is brutal and I’m always thrilled to hear her get to have her vocals soar like the stellar soprano she is. 

Joe fights for finding purpose when his life hits rock bottom and d’Arcy James fills his performance with desperation and then inspiration. I would have liked Greif to pull d’Arcy James back a little at the beginning, making him a little more charming and a little less aggressively cocky. Not much, just a touch. It would make that early connection between Joe and Kirsten a little more palatable and make the emotions later feel a little more earned.

An interesting facet of Days of Wine and Roses is that aside from several moments where Joe and Kirsten’s daughter Lila, played beautifully by Ella Dane Morgan, sings, none of the other six cast members sing. This is an interesting choice, especially for Byron Jennings, who gives a deeply desperate and moving performance as Kirsten’s father, who is credited as just Arnensen, who has a significant amount of stage time and it would seem natural that he would have a song or two. The same can be said for David Jennings, who plays Jim Hungerford, a beleaguered A.A. sponsor with heart and warmth who deserves a song of his own as well, or maybe a duet or trio.

Though Lizzie Clachan’s set design doesn’t initially feel too complex, it quickly builds and expands and becomes a wonderfully detailed set, with a greenhouse that fills up the upstage and a sliding platform downstage that reveals a little water element that isn’t exactly necessary but having it there adds that little bit of extra detail that elevates it just that little bit more.

Days of Wine and Roses feels dated in its book. I think the conflict between Joe and Kirsten and the addressing of alcoholism could have been a bit more textured. Add two or three more songs for a couple of the supporting characters, this can be an excellent show.

It’s still good and worth seeing. d’Arcy James and O’Hara give great performances and the music is exciting to hear.