‘Days of Wine and Roses’ Off Broadway Review: Kelli O’Hara, Brian d’Arcy James Lead One of the Century’s Few Great Musicals

Musical theater lightning strikes twice with Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s long-awaited follow-up to “The Light in the Piazza”

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in "Days of Wine and Roses" (Credit: Ahron R. Foster for Atlantic Theater Company)
"Days of Wine and Roses" (Credit: Ahron R. Foster)

The most wonderful thing about Adam Guettel’s new “Days of Wine and Roses” score is that no one will walk out of the theater humming it. His new musical sounds like nothing else in the theater — unless you go back to his previous shows, “Floyd Collins” (1996) and “The Light in the Piazza” (2003), which also features a book by Craig Lucas.

Again delivering a smart adaptation, Lucas here uses the 1958 teleplay and 1963 movie “Days of Wine and Roses” as his source material, where the original characters don’t exactly have any reason to sing. Through sheer dint of his enormous talent, Guettel makes those characters sing in the new stage production that had its world premiere Monday at the Atlantic Theater.

Unlike most musicals, the two lovers here don’t sing because they want to. They have to sing to release their demons.

When people walk out humming show tunes, it’s because they’ve heard those songs before in only slightly different forms. Guettel’s songs are really arias, and it would be a good educated guess to bet that his music is not even easy for such trained singer-actors as Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James to learn, much less sing. The harmonies are as unusual as the time signatures, and often as mercurial in the ways in which Guettel switches them. Even when these two chronic alcoholic characters are having a good time early in the show, those harmonies and time signatures can turn on the characters’ whim, creating an undercurrent of discontent. Add to that Guettel’s penchant for vocal lines that both leap and plunge a number of notes. Again, it’s  something you hear more often in opera than musical theater, and ultimately, Guettel makes Lucas’ tormented characters sing because their suffering forces them to.

“Days of Wine and Roses” more resembles Guettel’s “Floyd Collins” than “The Light in the Piazza” with its breaking-through-the-clouds optimism. In the former, Tina Landau’s book places the action in a cave that has collapsed and trapped the title character. In “Days of Wine and Roses,” Lucas’ book places us in the rooms of Joe and Kirsten’s rapidly collapsing marriage. And in an audacious masterstroke of theatrical derring-do, Guettel restricts the singing to his two lead characters. Only their young daughter, Lila (Ella Dane Morgan), joins in a couple of songs late in the musical.

Lucas has radically expanded this juvenile role from the original teleplay and film, and Guettel provides a series of haunting duets between the absent mother and the distraught daughter in which they read-sing each other’s letters. Lucas also wisely reduces the role of Joe’s AA sponsor (Jack Klugman delivered an insufferably bombastic performance in the film version). On stage, David Jennings underplays this role, and instead of that character’s sermonizing, Guettel takes over to have Joe deliver jagged songs that expose his twisted state of mind.

Lucas and Guettel never open up the source material. Instead, they restrict it, and despite a few scenes taking place in Joe’s place of business, there is no ensemble “Turkey Lurkey Time” showstopper a la “Promises, Promises” to sweeten up the melodrama.

While Lucas’ book extends Joe and Kirsten’s estrangement, he skimps a bit too much in establishing their relationship. D’Arcy James is nearly as ebullient and driven as Jack Lemmon (the movie’s Joe) in his pursuit of Kirsten. O’Hara, on the other hand, is far less prickly than Lee Remick (the movie’s Kirsten) in her initial rejection of Joe. As written and performed, Kirsten is now as ready as Joe to launch into an affair. That approach certainly gets things moving fast. Perhaps too fast.  A little conflict gives the Kirsten character more depth. (Also, I really missed the great “I hate peanut brittle” scene as performed by Remick.)

Otherwise, the book follows its source material closely but creates a far more claustrophobic world in limiting its musical palate to only three characters.

Michael Greif directs, and his success with delivering truly awesome performances from O’Hara and d’Arcy James is nothing short of remarkable. Even if you removed their vocals, which are phenomenal, the performances stand on their own, especially the motel room scene where Joe finds Kirsten on an extended bender. O’Hara and d’Arcy James are musical theater stars, but with “Days of Wine and Roses” we can only mourn all those great “straight” performances they never delivered. Who knows? This gig could open up a whole other door for them in the theater.

As with so many musicals derived from movies rather than plays, “Days of Wine and Roses” is chockfull of scenes. Greif is often very effective at creating visual interludes that tie up the quick lapses in time and place. Occasionally, however, the stage just goes black as the actors and stagehands rearrange the furniture. Lizzie Clachan’s set begins stylishly with a series of sliding colored screens but soon settles into a kitchen-sink realism that Greif can’t always prevent from slowing down the narrative.

With all the big names participating here, “Days of Wine and Roses” looks to transfer to Broadway. Perhaps on a large stage with more physical resources, some of these directorial longueurs can be reduced or eliminated. Right now, the only major criticism to level at “Days of Wine and Roses” is that it took Guettel so long to write his third musical, which can easily take its place as one of the few great musicals of this century.