Monday, January 29, 2024

Review: Days of Wine and Roses

Review of the Sunday evening preview performance on January 7, 2024 at Studio 54 in New York City. Starring Kelli O'Hara, Brian d'Arcy James, Byron Jennings, David Jennings, and Tabitha Lawing. Music, lyrics and orchestrations by Adam Guettel. Book by Craig Lucas. Based on the play by JP Miller and the Warner Brothers film. Scenic design by Lizzie Clachan. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Sound design by Kai Harada. Musical direction by Kimberly Grigsby. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia. Direction by Michael Greif. 1 hour 50 minutes with no intermission.

The air of Studio 54 was filled with excited anticipation for the second preview of the new musical Days of Wine and Roses. It really felt like an event. Would the latest from Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) and Craig Lucas (book) work as well on a larger Broadway stage as it did at the Atlantic off-Broadway? I didn't see the earlier production, so I can't compare, but I can say that it was Opening Night ready from where I sat. 

On a sleek, yet somehow foreboding unit set (design by Lizzie Clachan), we are transported to late 50s/early 60s New York. The environs, enhanced by Ben Stanton's by the mood-of-the-scene lighting and Dede Ayite's spot on, character-driven costumes, tell us as much about the central characters' descent into alcohol addiction as the music and script do. 

Based on a previous play and a famous film, the musical delves deep into the crushing weight of being dependent on booze to feel connected to life and your loved ones. Essentially a two character show, with a handful of important supporting roles, Wine and Roses is both an intimate examination of the relationship between Joe and Kirsten, and a broader cautionary tale. Under Michael Greif's tight direction, each moment builds on the last, and he has carefully steered the piece away from what could have easily become a histrionic soap opera. He deftly tells us where to look and what to see, but without judgement, leaving us to ponder and deal with our own feelings about what we are witnessing. I myself can attest to a wide range of often conflicting emotions. It is quite a ride, one that left me spent and in awe. In many ways, it reminded me of his work on Next to Normal.

The uniformly superb company of actors drive this piece to dizzying heights and terrifying lows. There is a small, hard-working ensemble called upon to fill in the gaps, acting purposefully like background players do in film. They definitely contribute to the brilliant whole of the show. David Jennings offers a tower-of-strength support system as the AA sponsor for Joe. What makes this role interesting is that back in the day, AA wasn't as widely known or accepted, so what we today are familiar with as far as warning signs and steps, could easily have come across as cliche or empty platitudes, but instead come off as fresh and sincere. Mr. Jennings' delivery never comes across as preachy. As Kirsten's father, Byron Jennings gives a brilliant multi-layered performance as a man fighting his own demons while helplessly struggling to save his daughter. There were times when he stood silently off to the side, almost in the shadows, and you could feel every emotion he was feeling. Making her Broadway debut as the couple's young daughter, Tabitha Lawing joins a growing list of strong child actors who give sincere, deep portrayals. Not since Sydney Lucas in Fun Home have I seen such an absolutely real performance from someone so young. Brava!

When you have two actors as beloved as Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James, it can be a dicey thing. Will they meet our impossibly high standards for their work, or will they disappoint? Here, they have made our standards even higher. Both are giving career-defining performances that will be remembered for seasons to come. Their chemistry is palpable - even (or especially) when they are careening away from each other in a downward spiral. 


Mr. James is amazing as he navigates the tricky journey from marginally sleazy businessman with all the right words to violent alcoholic to teetering-on-the-edge sober caretaker. At times, he charms. Other times, he is cruel and manipulative - you hate him. But a lot of the time you pity him. (To say more could give away how things play out here.) There is one scene in particular where I felt like I was seeing him in previously uncharted waters. During what amounts to an aria, he desperately, destructively searches for a hidden bottle of booze. He was chilling and brilliant. Ms. O'Hara also navigates a terrifying journey from smart as a whip, totally in control teetotaler to fun party girl to tragic alcoholic. At times, she charms. Other times, she is easily manipulated - you want to shake her awake. And, yes, a lot of the time, you pity her. She makes some very poor decisions regarding her family, lying and wallowing in self-pity. The contrast between her happy confidence in the opening scenes and one particular scene later in a hotel room is shocking. Her transformation both emotionally and physically is as brilliant as it is troubling. The bottom line is that both of these actors are at the peak of their careers, giving tour-de-force performances.

This is not a show for the casual, let's-see-a-musical crowd. If you only like brassy, dance-y spectaculars, this won't be for you. But if you like dramatic, thought-provoking theater that expects you to engage, get a ticket and buckle up. Guettel's jazzy, complex score and Lucas' tension filled book, along with brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime performances will remind you that musicals are, indeed, art.

📸: A. Foster, J. Marcus

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