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‘Days of Wine and Roses’ Broadway Review: Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James Fire Up a Truly Great Musical

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

Delivering another 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 really have any reason to sing. Through sheer dint of his enormous talent, Guettel makes those two chronic alcoholics sing for their life in the new stage production that opened Sunday on Broadway at Studio 54 after its world premiere last year at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater.

Unlike most musicals, the two lovers in “Days of Wine and Roses” don’t sing because they want to. They have to sing to release their demons, which don’t often make for easy listening.

When people walk out humming show tunes, it’s because they’ve heard those songs before in only slightly different forms. Friends of mine who saw and didn’t like “Days of Wine and Roses” in its off-Broadway incarnation complained about the lack of melody in Guettel’s songs.

It reminded me of what people used to say about Stephen Sondheim back in the 1970s. It would be a good educated guess to say that Guettel’s music, like Sondheim’s, is not easy to learn, much less perform — even for such trained singer-actors as Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James. The harmonies are as unusual as the time signatures, and often as mercurial in the ways in which Guettel switches them.

Even when the doomed Joe and Kirsten are having a good time early in the show, the harmonies and time signatures can turn on the characters’ booze-induced whims, creating an undercurrent of discontent. Add to that Guettel’s penchant for vocal lines that leap and then plunge a number of notes. 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 (Tabitha Lawing), 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, the focus remains on Joe and his delivery of powerfully jagged songs that expose a truly warped perception of reality.

Lucas and Guettel never open up the source material. Instead, they restrict it. 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.

In this 105-minute musical, Lucas’ book extends Joe and Kirsten’s estrangement from each other, but speeds up their initial meeting. In my review of the off-Broadway production, I wrote that Lucas “skimps a bit too much in establishing their relationship.” Seeing the Broadway production, I think Lucas gets it just right, and I much admire the book’s economy.

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). As written and performed, Kirsten is now as gung-ho as Joe to launch into an affair. That approach not only gets things moving fast, it signals an underlying desperation shared by both characters to connect to someone, perhaps anyone.

Michael Greif directs, and he takes full advantage of the resources of a big Broadway stage and theater, which this intimate show has no problem filling. Off Broadway, too many stagehands were often seen moving the set around. Now, in a far more mechanized production, Lizzie Clachan’s set design shows remarkable speed in changing locals, and Grief’s direction takes on a hallucinatory quality that is often arresting and sometimes downright nightmarish.

Most important, Greif obtains truly awesome performances from O’Hara and d’Arcy James. Even if you removed the two actors’ 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.

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.

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