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‘Days Of Wine And Roses’ Broadway Review: Trying Times For Good Folk In Exemplary Production; Also, A Bouncy ‘Once Upon A Mattress’

It’s easy to feel a bit smug early on in Days of Wine and Roses, as we know so much more – or at least have so much greater vocabularies – when it comes to things like toxic relationships and the role of abstinence in maintaining sobriety and all the other tenets of Bill W that have passed into common parlance and popular culture since Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick starred in the 1962 feature film version. Would the musical’s lovestruck alcoholics Kirstin Arnensen (Kelli O’Hara) and Joe Clay (Brian D’Arcy James) stood readier for battle if they’d seen so much as a single episode of Celebrity Rehab?

Whatever misguided self-satisfaction we initially cling to fades fast as this cast, its director Michael Grief, book writer Craig Lucas and composer/lyricist Adam Guettel draw us into their jazzy world of Brandy Alexanders, martini lunches – what Loudon Wainwright III once described as “drinks before dinner and wine with dinner and after-dinner drinks.” We’re barely into the hour and 45 minute running time before we’ve begun to see life through the blurry, hazy lens of a couple we’ve come to know well.

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Chalk it up to theatrical arts of the first order – acting, direction, book and Guettel’s mesmerizing operatic bebop – that we’re soon hand-in-shaky hand with characters who haven’t a clue how to break the cycle of whiskey-ice-repeat. We’re transported back in time by Kirstin’s lovely sleeveless, A-line cocktail dress (Dede Ayite designed the costumes, showing, among other things, how you really do Barbie), a delightful look that quickly enough gives way to ratty old Baby Jane Hudson bathrobes. And watch Joe morph from Man In a Gray Flannel Suit to rumpled slob in yesterday’s slept-ins, all inhabiting a midcentury modern world, perfectly designed by Lizzie Clachan, that seems by turns airy and claustrophobic.

Only Ben Stanton’s lighting design of colored Mondrian rectangular panels stand as signals for the world beyond, the warm orange of a new morning, the deep black of an enticing New York night. Look there, those backdrops seem to tell us, there’s life out there if you’d only care to see.

D’Arcy James, O’Hara,
D’Arcy James, O’Hara,

Somehow, despite its somber theme, Days of Wine and Roses is sumptuous from start to finish, a resplendent melding of music and acting and storytelling that dares us to confront lessons we only thought we learned ages ago.

Title: Days of Wine and Roses
Venue: Studio 54
Director: Michael Greif
Book: Craig Lucas
Music: Adam Guettel
Cast: Kelli O’Hara, Brian d’Arcy James, Byron Jennings, Tabitha Lawing, Sharon Catherine Brown, Tony Carlin, Bill English, Olivia Hernandez, David Jennings, David Manis, Steven Booth, Nicole Ferguson , Addie Manthey and Kelcey Watson.
Running time: 1 hr 45 min (no intermission)

Sutton Foster, ‘Once Upon a Mattress’
Sutton Foster, ‘Once Upon a Mattress’

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS

If Days of Wine and Roses reminds us that recovery jargon was once as fresh as the young, bound-for-heartbreak couple at the musical’s center, Encores’ scaled-down presentation of the 1959 fractured Fairy Tale Once Upon a Mattress has a daunting task all its own: To get audiences to put aside beloved memories of a youthful Carol Burnett belting out, in ancient black-and-white TV clips, her once-newfound signature song “Shy.”

You know the one – and if you don’t, watch it here. “Shy” pretty much made Burnett an overnight star, and whaddayknow, it still works magic. Under the direction of Lear deBessonet and with cleverly updated language by Amy Sherman-Palladino (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) this production makes a convincing case of life yet to be had in the old Mary Rodgers-Marshall Barrer score.

Pulling together a Who’s Who of Broadway ’24, Mattress stars J. Harrison Ghee, Cheyenne Jackson, Michael Urie, Nikki Renée Daniels, Francis Jue, David Patrick Kelly and, saving the best for last, Harriet Harris as the snooty, plummy-voiced Queen Aggravain and, in the Burnett role of Winnifred the Woebegone, the bog dweller who must prove her worthiness to marry Urie’s Prince Dauntless the Drab, Sutton Foster, having a blast.

Based on the Fairy Tale “The Princess and the Pea,” Winnifred – Fred to her friends – must pass a test to prove she has the royal stuff: The son-smothering queen, to keep young Dauntless tied to her royal ribbons, devises a doomed-for-fail trial: Winnifred must sleep upon on a pile of cushy mattress with nothing to disturb but one tiny pea secreted under the bottom mattress. If she dozes, she’s out: Only a true princess would be sensitive enough to toss and turn from one little ol’ lentil.

Harriet Harris, Michael Urie, Cheyenne Jackson, Nikki Renée Daniels, ‘Once Upon a Mattress’
Harriet Harris, Michael Urie, Cheyenne Jackson, Nikki Renée Daniels, ‘Once Upon a Mattress’

And guess what? Spoiler Ale…ah forget it. You know the way of Fairy Tales. There’s a happy ending, and Mattress has loads of silly fun and beautifully sung songs getting there.

With its limited run through February 4, Once Upon a Mattress will pack up its fairy tale finery well before Foster’s February 9 start in Sweeney Todd nine blocks away. Sandwiched between her delightful 2022 spin alongside Hugh Jackman in The Music Man and next month’s costarring role as Mrs. Lovett opposite Aaron Tveit’s demon barber, Foster couldn’t have found a tastier palate cleanser than Winnifred, nor a more charmed home to rest her weary, ever-so-busy head.

Title: Once Upon a Mattress
Venue: Encores! at New York City Center
Director: Lear deBessonet
Concert Adaptation: Amy Sherman-Palladino
Music: Mary Rodgers
Lyrics: Marshall Barer
Book: Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller & Marshall Barer
Principal Cast: Sutton Foster, Michael Urie, Nikki Renée Daniels, J. Harrison Ghee, Harriet Harris, Cheyenne Jackson, Francis Jue and David Patrick Kelly
Running time: 2 hrs 15 min (with one intermission)

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