By Harry Forbes
I recently watched the 1958 “Playhouse 90” television version of JP Miller's “Days of Wine and Roses” to have a frame of reference for this new musical version, especially as I hadn’t seen the 1962 Blake Edwards film with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in many years.
The narrative of those and the Atlantic’s current production -- developed, in part, at the 2015 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab at MASS MoCA -- traces the rocky booze-soaked codependency of Joe, a 1950s PR man and Kirsten, a teetotaling secretary: “two people stranded at sea,” as they are described. Early in their relationship, Joe persuades Kirsten to join him in his hard-drinking ways. They marry, and thereafter, they experience a pathetic downward spiral. He’ll soon lose his job, and even when after his first failed attempts, manages to straighten himself out, Kirsten will prove more gripped by her addiction than he.
Craig Lucas's book for what might be more accurately defined as a chamber opera adheres to the original teleplay with remarkable fidelity only dropping the rather obvious Alcoholics Anonymous flashback framing device.
In leads Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James, the production is blessed with performers who capture remarkably well the intensity, if not perhaps all the raw ugliness, of the roles’ originators, Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. But of course, Robertson and Laurie didn't have to sing Adam Guettel’s complex and demanding score, which they do most beautifully. With director Michael Greif at the helm, the dramatic elements are as strong as the musical ones.
This has been quite the month for Guettel whose 2005 adaptation of “The Light in the Piazza” just received an outstanding revival at City Center’s Encores series, though it must be said straight away that the storyline of “Piazza” is considerably more audience satisfying than the relentlessly downbeat dramatics of the new work.
Guettel’s score is as technically accomplished if not (at least on first hearing) as melodic that of “Piazza,” and both stars have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their musical and dramatic chops. Guettel varies the musical palette with aching ballads, reflective monologues, and some jazzy riffs to lighten the mood every now and then. But, as noted, the numbers are far from a traditional Broadway musical vein. This is the kind of modern opera Beverly Sills might have championed when she was running New York City Opera back in the day.
Besides the lustrous work of O’Hara and James, the supporting cast is excellent, particularly Byron Jennings, outstanding as Kirsten's taciturn Norwegian father, the part memorably played by Charles Bickford in both the TV version and the film. And there’s good work from Ella Dane Morgan as the couple’s young daughter.
Lizzie Clachan’s versatile lighted panel set in the first few scenes gives way to a beautifully detailed rendering of Arneson’s greenhouse and a sad and dingy motel room as the story progresses. Dede Ayite’s costumes capture the mid-20th century fashions accurately.
Props also to Kai Harada’s crystal clear sound design, and Ben Stanton’s astute lighting.
Musical director Kimberly Grigsby leads the intricate score, orchestrated by Guettel himself along with Jamie Lawrence, with deft sensitivity.
And I can't resist adding that it was a special pleasure to watch the performance with an intelligent audience that responded appropriately to the drama and the music, without all the showy screaming and yelling heard at the Encores’ “Light in the Piazza” where the rabid show fans greeted each character entrance and musical number, no matter how delicate the mood, as if they were watching “MJ” or “Six.”
(Linda Gross Theater, Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street; atlantictheater.org; through July 16)
Photo by Ahron R. Foster: (l-r) Brian d’Arcy James (Joe) and Kelli O’Hara (Kirsten)