Reviews BroadwayNYC Published 29 January 2024

Review: Days of Wine and Roses at Studio 54

Studio 54 ⋄ 6 Jan-28 April

Despite virtuosic performances, this musical adaptation of the 1962 film about a pair of alcoholics feels like its subject matter is straining against its form. Juliet Hindell reviews.

Juliet Hindell

“Days of Wine and Roses” at Studio 54 (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The musical version of Days of Wine and Roses first seen last year at the Atlantic and now on Broadway, is a sobering evening. While the cast and score are emotionally on point, there remains a fundamental mismatch between the subject matter and the medium. This musical is not your traditional Broadway extravaganza for all the family. Rather, this is a moving portrayal of a couple’s descent into alcoholism and the toll it takes on their marriage and their family.

The plot hews closely to the 1962 film and Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James as the fated couple even bear a passing resemblance to Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. But where the musical veers away from its predecessor is in the lighter touch applied to the serious topic. James as Joe Clay is a lovable rogue at first sight, but we soon learn he is a heavy drinker. He meets his strait-laced teetotal co-worker Kirsten Arnesen at a work event and soon seduces her with the help of alcohol. The scene is New York in the late 1950s and the costumes by Dede Ayite make Kirsten appear a Doris Day lookalike, flipped blonde hair included. While the floating neon signs signal bars and liquor stores. Kirsten’s first drink leads to the first big number of the show, “There Go I”, in which she admits that she “loves danger” while looking out over water from a dark New York pier.

The action leaps ahead and the couple are now living the life in New York, each evening lubricated with liberal amounts of heavy liquor. Their love affair while fuelled by alcohol is tangible and plausibly develops into a toxic co-dependence. However, all this is bathed in sparkling light as disco balls descend from above and champagne bubbles are projected on the backdrop of Lizzie Clachan’s set heralding the song “Evanesce”. The drinking is portrayed as excessive, but we are still in cheerful territory. On a whim, late at night, the two decide to visit Kirsten’s Norwegian father at his flower farm in Long Island. Byron Jennings as Arnesen gives a nuanced performance as a skeptical parent, unsure that his daughter’s new husband is a good match. The visit marks the turning point for the play, from here on it’s hard not to feel prurient as Kirsten and Joe self-destruct.

Fast forward again and they are now parents themselves. But they soon revert to their reliance on alcohol. It’s here that perhaps the most uncomfortable confluence of musical and addiction are most out of step. Kelli O’Hara does her best with a scene where she attempts some slovenly housekeeping vodka in hand. As we watch her dance around with a vacuum cleaner singing about housework just feels trite. Her daughter Lila, now 7 years old and played with pluck by Tabitha Lawing, is keenly aware that something is wrong.

It gets even worse, and the family is forced to move out to Long Island to live with Kirsten’s father. Here the somewhat claustrophobic set opens out with the depiction of the greenhouse on the farm reflecting the fresh start the pair believe they can make. Kirsten and Lila sing an optimistic duet “First Breath” about their new life. Kirsten and Joe’s sobriety, however, is short lived. Here the musical differs significantly from the film. Joe does eventually get sober with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous but, unlike the film, he is not subject to the extreme treatment that his cinema counterpart undergoes. This version also makes only the most passing suggestion that his drinking is in part to overcome PTSD from serving in the Korean War. It seems an afterthought and could have been more convincingly included. That said, there are a few sections where some judicious editing could have made the show tighter overall.

While much of the musical treatment seems somewhat at odds with the serious story there are moments of charm and levity. A delightful duet between Lila and Kirsten as they write letters to each other may be the only song in any musical that details an outbreak of lice. Much is also made of Kirsten’s Norwegian heritage with a song based around the phrase “Sammen I Himmelen” – together in heaven.

The music and lyrics of the show deliver ample opportunities for O’Hara and James to thrill and there are moments where their virtuosic range adds to the tragic arc of the story. But with the need to have the characters and the strong supporting ensemble break into song at regular intervals the dark consequences of alcoholism seem in danger of trivialization.

Juliet Hindell

Juliet Hindell first went to the theatre to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when she was four. She’s calculated that she has since seen that play more than 2 dozen times, once in Japanese. A Brit, Juliet has made her home in London, Paris, Washington D.C., Tokyo, Hong Kong, Charlotte NC and now New York. A journalist, Juliet wavers between new writing and musicals as her favorite forms of theatre, and of course Shakespeare.

Review: Days of Wine and Roses at Studio 54 Show Info

Produced by Kevin McCollum, Mark Cortale, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, Atlantic Theater Company, et al

Directed by Michael Greif

Written by Craig Lucas (book)

Choreography by Sergio Trujillo, Karla Puno Garcia

Scenic Design Lizzie Clachlan, COSTUME DESIGN: Dede Ayite

Lighting Design Ben Stanton

Sound Design Kai Harada

Cast includes Steven Booth, Sharon Catherine Brown, Tony Carlin, Bill English, Nicole Ferguson, Olivia Hernandez, Brian d'Arcy James, Byron Jennings, David Jennings, Tabitha Lawing, David Manis, Addie Manthey, Kelli O'Hara, Kelcey Watson

Original Music Adam Guettel (music & lyrics)

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 1hr 50min


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