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This One Goes Down Hard: “Days of Wine and Roses” reviewed

The 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, an adaptation of J.P. Miller’s own 1958 teleplay, had the great fortune to be blessed with three masterful performances and the misfortune to be released the same year as such higher-wattage classics as Lawrence of Arabia, The Miracle Worker and To Kill a Mockingbird.

A new generation might now discover that film thanks to Atlantic Theater Company’s musical adaptation. It, too, is kissed by a bevy of creative talent: director Michael Greif, composer Adam Guettel, librettist Craig Lucas, stars Brian D’arcy James and Kelli O’Hara.

Unfortunately, bad luck has struck again as well: Wine and Roses really isn’t a story that asks for the musical treatment.

Erstwhile Sweet Smell of Success siblings James and O’Hara are Joe and Kirsten, whose lives spiral downward into alcoholism shortly after they fall in love. The show is a chamber musical, its score often bordering on operatic, that offers rich possibilities for its two stars to shine, both vocally and dramatically.

Guettel creates a shocking musical language, filled with jagged-edged melodies and sudden stops that make it sound like Jim and Kirsten are dancing as fast as they can as they get progressively drunker. One song, “Evanesce,” has a tempo that feels so disorienting it’s as if Jim and Kirsten can barely keep up. A late number, “Forgiveness,” sits at the very top of d’Arcy James’s range, forcing him into a prickly falsetto that captures the strained emotions of the song with devastating accuracy. It always helps when a composer knows exactly how to write for a particular singer’s sweet spot, and while the character of Kirsten could use some more fleshing out textually, O’Hara’s sung moments are nothing short of virtuosic.

Although a laudable effort in every way, Wine and Roses never quite comes to life. The story feels overly compressed, providing little insight into the characters after an obviously hard-drinking Joe introduces the teetotaler Kirsten to the pleasures of alcohol via a chocolate Brandy Alexander in the opening minutes. We’ve barely been introduced to them before they’re both struggling to preserve their marriage while in the throes of their addiction. Lucas’ book hews closely to the film, with the exception of an expanded role for the couple’s young daughter, Lila (Ella Dane Morgan), but it lacks the same texture. It’s a short musical, running an intermissionless 100 minutes, that somehow feels much longer.

It doesn’t help that the deadly serious tone occasionally shifts into distracting silliness, such as Joe comically searching for a bottle of booze he’s hidden in a greenhouse or Kirsten drunkenly warbling a ditty while cleaning house. With a few exceptions, the most notable being the songs “There Go I” and “Forgiveness” (the latter sung by d’Arcy James and later gorgeously reprised by O’Hara), the music, although lovely in an ethereal, unmemorable sort of way, doesn’t do much to enhance the material. Too often it feels like underscoring with vocals added. It’s not fair to make the comparison, but you find yourself internally humming the film’s immortal theme song composed by Henry Mancini. Guettel also provided the lyrics and orchestrations, with the former too often lacking specificity and the latter feeling wan.

Additionally, in the 61 years since the movie premiered, the subject of addiction has been depicted in countless books, films, and plays, making the themes feel redundant if sadly no less relevant. And let’s face it, these stories mostly follow the same general pattern. A character (or characters) starts out sober, becomes addicted, recovers, has a relapse. Rinse and repeat.

Days of Wine and Roses

Linda Gross Theatre