Review | A new musical shows how hard it is to make alcoholism interesting onstage

NEW YORK — Booze-fueled romance is no novelty. Ditto relationships that implode from a lack of impulse control. But few lovers spiraling toward disaster sound like Kelli O’Hara does in song: radiant, crystalline and transcendent.

“Days of Wine and Roses,” which transferred to Broadway’s Studio 54 following a hot-ticket run at the Atlantic Theater Company last spring, is characterized by uneasy marriages. There is, of course, the one between O’Hara’s Kirsten Arnesen, a secretary whose bottomless thirst for knowledge disappears as soon as she sips her first cocktail, and Joe Clay, the PR man played by Brian d’Arcy James, who orders it for her.

Call it love by way of brandy Alexander. After a meet-cute at a riverside business party (they work on the same floor in mid-century Manhattan), the pair tumble headlong into the conventions of a shared life — matrimony, procreation, child care — all while giddily splashing through liquor like kids on a Slip ’N Slide. Their crash and burn is inevitable from the start, not just to those who’ve seen the 1962 film the musical is based on, starring Jack Lemon and Lee Remick, but to anyone familiar with the concept of addiction.

There is also the strained union between this relatively mundane plot, not unlike a PSA about the dangers of alcoholism, and the poetic, dynamic songs by Adam Guettel, who also collaborated with O’Hara and book writer Craig Lucas on “The Light in the Piazza.” Fizzy and jazzy during the couple’s soused courtship, delicate and melancholy in the aftermath of their downfall, the score is a rich and undeniably gorgeous vehicle for the production’s stars, and especially O’Hara, for whom the adaptation has long been a passion project.

And when she opens her mouth to sing, with crisp, midmorning clarity, everything else blurs out of focus. The pitch-dark periphery engulfing the stage, a signature of the director Michael Greif, encourages such moments of tunnel vision, though O’Hara accomplishes the effect on her own. Greif’s staging, which grows more naturalistic as the pair careens off the rails, attempts its own kind of seduction. Lizzie Clachan’s set includes glowy panels that shift colors like chameleon mood boards while Ben Stanton’s watery lighting plays on the refrain of “two people stranded at sea.”

How ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ became a musical about love, and addiction

But only one of the two has much dimension. O’Hara’s Kirsten, screen-gem blonde and office chic before she is wrapped in a bathrobe as if to keep from unraveling, is rendered in intricate detail from the start (the impeccable hair and wig design are by David Brian Brown and costumes by Dede Ayite). But O’Hara’s performance comes to feel like a vivid portrait in search of a worthy context.

Joe isn’t drawn with nearly as much depth, even for a man whose job is to focus on surface appearances. While Kirsten sings half a dozen lyrical numbers that tell us who she is — scrupulous, kind, curious — Joe mostly seems like a charming suit with a hollow leg. An orphaned Korean War vet, he’s Don Draper with a bubbly sense of humor. Lemon brought frenetic charisma to the role, while d’Arcy James takes a more grounded approach. Either way, the story’s retro and rudimentary framework — Adam tempting Eve, in this case — is hard to wrest into compelling drama without two characters on somewhat equal footing.

Guettel and Lucas both try, but the arc of addiction is neither unpredictable nor dramatic when chemical dependency is the sole antagonist. (Kirsten’s disapproving father, thanklessly played by Byron Jennings, amounts to little more than collateral damage.) This is not a love story undone by overindulgence but one that hinges on it at the expense of developing a deeper logic. Inebriation isn’t ultimately all that interesting to watch, particularly when you know how much more a star can do.

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Lucas, while staying faithful to the film and to the play by JP Miller, adds smart quips and strengthens the emotional connection between Kirsten and the couple’s neglected daughter, played by Tabitha Lawing. Yet the script also includes lines like, “There’s nowhere for us to go but up. Right?” foreshadowing like a highway billboard that rock-bottom still awaits. The show is intermissionless, sparing patrons the disquieting prospect of a trip to the bar, and emphasizing the speed of the couple’s infatuation with the cause of their undoing.

Still, there are plenty of joys and sorrows to play even in a straightforward cautionary tale. O’Hara and d’Arcy James are preeminent interpreters of the subtleties of ordinary life — and that may be intoxicating enough on its own.

Days of Wine and Roses, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia; music direction, Kimberly Grigsby; sets, Lizzie Clachan; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound design, Kai Harada; hair and wig design, David Brian Brown; orchestrations, Adam Guettel and Jamie Lawrence. About 1 hour and 45 minutes. Through April 28 at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York.

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