Days of Wine and Roses

Studio 54 through April 28

By: - Feb 16, 2024

If you watched Mad Men, you have a good idea of what the ‘50s were like: executives who had the three-martini lunch and then more drinks before heading home; entertaining out-of-town clients who wanted to “kick up their heels” with booze and women; intelligent women who worked as secretaries but left the workforce to raise a family.

Days of Wine and Roses gives us Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen.

Joe (Brian d’Arcy James ), in one of his best performances, is an up-and-coming public relations executive who’s just returned from Korea. When he first meets Kristen (Kelli O’Hara), he mistakes her for one of the women he’s hired to “socialize” at the party. But she is the secretary to Joe’s boss. He is astonished to learn she doesn’t drink, but a Brandy Alexander changes that.

The musical, like the teleplay and movie on which it is based, follows the couple over an extended period. A few drinks become many more; though Kirsten abstains while nursing their daughter, she is soon back to her habit. It gets worse when Joe is transferred to Houston. By the age of seven, their daughter Lila is not only taking care of herself, but also her mother and the apartment.

The trajectory is a downward spiral, with alcohol becoming more and more a necessity. While both try to stop – first when they are living with Kirsten’s father – the lure of the booze pulls them back time after time. After hospitalization for alcohol poisoning, Joe finally joins AA and meets with his sponsor. Kirsten is disdainful of the group and Joe for joining it. She uses the old lines “one drink won’t hurt you,” and “you just need will power” to both tempt Joe (and she succeeds at least twice) and to justify her refusal to seek help.

Eventually, Joe becomes sober and rebuilds his life with his daughter; Kristen drifts off, aware that she is unable or doesn’t want to quit.

This is a show that leaves you with a glimmer of hope – for Joe and Lila. A cloud of tragedy is also present; Kirsten will destroy herself.

The musical is based on the teleplay by JP Miller and the Warner Brothers film, all with the same name. The 1958 Playhouse 90 production starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. The 1962 film starred Jack Lemon and Lee Remick.

The creative team includes music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas, direction by Michael Grief, and choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia.

James and O’Hara are outstanding as Joe and Kirsten. Equally good is Byron Jennings as Kirsten’s father and Tabitha Lawing as Lila. The other cast members, all very good, play multiple roles.

O’Hara has the majority of the songs in the show. They are beautiful and her soprano voice makes the most of them. Guettel has infused the score with a subtle ‘50s jazz ambiance.  But probably the song that will break your heart if “Sammen I Himmelen” which O’Hara sings in Norwegian; it means “Together in Heaven.”

Hearing the score for a second time – I had seen the off-Broadway production last summer – I was taken with several other songs – “There Go I,” “As the Water Loves the Stone,” and “Forgiveness.” The exuberant “” Evanesce” describes the delights of alcohol.  Both James and O’Hara dig deep into the characters; subtly portraying the longing, the loneliness, the desperation, and the insecurities that lurk way beneath the surface. At moments you see the sheer fun of it all, especially in two delightful dance numbers. Jennings converys not only the worry of Kirsten’s father, but his reserve and his helplessness. He doesn’t understand and cannot accept that it isn’t all Joe’s fault.

Days of Wine and Roses has a limited run at Studio 54 through April 28. Who knows if there is a possibility of an extension? You can bet this show – including its two leads will receive multiple award nominations.