“Days of Wine and Roses” at Studio 54, New York

Glenda Frank in Manhattan
19 February 2024

We slip into Days of Wine and Roses — now at Studio 54 after a run last season at the Atlantic Theatre Company — on Brian d’Arcy James’s rich tenor and linger as Joe Clay, the ambitious, quintessential public relations executive, displays his charisma and questionable morality. Soon he is joined by Kelli O’Hara as Kirsten Arnesen, the president’s secretary, who resists his charm. She sings to him about her self-education programme, “Story of the Atlantic Cable,” and to our surprise and his, it’s an interesting narrative. O’Hara’s vocal modulations kept me in rapt expectation, waiting for the next note. Magnificent! As Joe and Kirsten talk, they become increasingly attentive to each other, and in order to seduce her he introduces her (a teetotaller who loves chocolate) to Brandy Alexanders. She is doubly hooked.


Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.


The plot follows the familiar fall and (half) redemption formula. They drink together. He loses job after job. Her alcoholism is so badly out of control she has trouble caring for the house and their daughter (Tabitha Lawing). After they move into her father’s house and enjoy a period of sobriety, he tempts her again. After his father-in-law (Byron Jennings) tosses him out, Joe finds a mentor, who keeps him on track. Kirsten is still struggling with addiction when the play ends.

Their voices are a gift for the ear, and so hopes are high for this new musical version of the 1962 film that starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. But we were a more naïve nation in 1962 especially about addiction. The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955, a film starring Frank Sinatra, and Jack Gelber’s The Connection, off Broadway in 1961, about addicts waiting for their dealer, exposed a shocking underbelly that has been mined time and again, opening up to embrace methamphetamine and fentanyl. We know too much for the script by Craig Lucas, a gifted wordsmith whose poignant, compelling book The Light in the Piazza won a Tony nomination. Adam Guettel, once more his partner, received the Tony for music and lyrics.

What’s satisfying now to contemporary audiences are backstories, not the effects of addiction. Lucas’s book raises questions without giving us answers. Joe Clay’s violent flashback to his Korean War experience comes late and looks like something tacked on to highlight his failures at sobriety.

As for Kirsten, her father asks why a bright girl raised on a Long Island farm become a falling-down-in-the-middle-of-the-day drunk, a woman unable to quit even when it means losing her daughter. He blames it on Joe, but we need more than finger-pointing. O’Hara gives a magnificent acting performance throughout – as the happy negligent mother, the guilt-ridden negligent mother, the ecstatic alcoholic, the good girl who hates the taste of alcohol, the woman who loves the rush of intoxication. The performances by all the cast are strong reasons to see the show. Every time I had a question about the characters and I drifted away, the actors pulled me back in.

My companion, perhaps remembering the film’s theme song, “The Days of Wine and Roses” by Henry Mancini, was disappointed with the score. She wanted something to hum as we left the theatre. I was impressed. Guettel loves sounds and teaches us to listen with our ears and our hearts. I admired the range, the duets, and the concept of sound as drama. Toward the end of the 90 minutes (no intermission), Joe and his daughter sing a nighttime prayer together to the tinkle of the piano, and then there is the loud, ugly sound of the door buzzer. Kirsten is outside, still not able or willing to shake off the temptation of alcohol but missing her family and bringing a gift for her daughter who she can’t face. Powerful stuff in the production directed by Michael Greif.