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A downward spiral in Broadway’s “Days of Wine and Roses”

NEW YORK — It’s a good thing that Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s melodic and meticulous musical “Days of Wine and Roses” opened Sunday night at Broadway’s Studio 54 under the able direction of Michael Greif. It consists of a single act. There wouldn’t be much profit in hiring a bartender for intermission.

That’s because the destructive third party in the piece’s rocky marriage of Joe Clay (Brian D’Arcy James) and Kirsten Arnesen (Kelli O’Hara) is a man named Jack Daniel who sometimes walks by. Nicknamed Johnnie Walker or Jim Beam, but always leaving a mark.

Most dramas about alcoholics follow a personal trajectory; typically follows a struggling hero as he descends a spiral of drinking and ends with temporary sobriety and a poor recovery. But JP Miller, one of the greatest teleplay writers of the so-called golden age of the gogglebox, created a teleplay in 1959 about the effect of booze on a group of two, or rather threesome, as Joe and Kristen have a child named Lila (Tabitha Lawing), one of He was robbed of his childhood because of his need to do everything himself when he should have brought her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

As a result, “Days of Wine and Roses” explores a more complex dynamic. Bereft of his parents and still traumatized by service in Korea, advertising executive Joe introduces drink to Kirsten at an office party, the daughter of a sullen Norwegian father (Byron Jennings, truly dour) who is still mourning the death of his wife. All she has to do to counter his Scandinavian sobriety is seduce him with a sweet brandy Alexander. But while Joe may be the one to fall first and fastest, it is Joe who finds a way to recover even as the woman he seduced with drink continues her free fall.

And so in 1962 a Warner Bros. The story that became the movie and gave rise to the Academy Award-winning song by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer takes on a broader context: it explores complicity in marriage, as well as how a couple who gives opportunity can step up and become more successful. they justify each other’s self-destruction and, in Lucas’s book, how a set of pervasive midcentury American traumas could combine and metastasize, crushing the next generation. This may explain some of the many crises America finds itself in right now.

My admiration for Guettel’s talent is so great that I listen to recordings of Guettel’s old shows like “Floyd Collins” and “Light in the Piazza” so often that it almost feels like I need to pull back. Suffice it to say, his compositional talents in the current Broadway world are incomparable.

However, having seen this musical (which opened at the Atlantic Theatre) twice, and both times wondering with my slight resistance, I think the show needs more songs that offer the kinds of existential exploration the plot suggests. After all, there is this stanza in the Irish poem that gave Miller his title: “Not long are the days of wine and roses. “Our path emerges from a hazy dream for a while, then closes in a dream.”

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He achieved this with songs like the title number of “Piazza” and “Dividing Day.” In this, Guettel is too resigned to the real-time thrall of the plot. In other words, Guettel is at his best when expanding on a short story like the New Yorker piece from which “Piazza” originated. Musicals based on movies always come with a lot of plot, especially in a one-act musical, and especially in the last few minutes when the film begins to quickly unravel. But here you are listening to actor-singers of the caliber of these two masters of the art, and all you really want is emotional statement. It can be transferred to yourself.

It’s not as if none of it is on offer: the show is powerful enough to evoke a sense of dread that’s hard to shake afterwards. And there are some Guettel chords here, working instinctively on the ear and the body, compounded by the insidiousness of alcoholism, a disease that, frankly, often hides in plain sight, especially on and around Broadway. The twin lead performances are musically excellent and bold to boot; The target audience for this melancholic musical will be Guettel’s many fans, as well as fans of the stars who are willing to go to a tough place just to be with each other. Watching O’Hara in particular will leave you drawn to her voice, but also to watch her explore self-destruction in a way few of her fans will ever experience.

Perhaps “Days of Wine and Roses” should have been bigger, offering a richer “Mad Men”-like spectacle of self-destruction and more opportunities for choreographers Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia, or perhaps even better, smaller, just focusing on a marriage and drinking and a lonely marriage and drinking.

The show is left in the middle, but it is still a beautifully directed, acted, written and composed piece that is about alcohol, yes, but also about our responsibility to the very few people in our lives who are absolutely dependent on us for their own happiness and survival. . We all have it. This show can help with that.

at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York; daysofwineandrosesbroadway.com

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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