War Paint

| May 26, 2017

War Paint

Nederlander Theatre, NYC, May 5, 2017

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Photos: Joan Marcus

Patti LuPone & Christine Ebersole

The Elizabeth Arden vs. Helena Rubinstein powder-puff championship was once the battle royale of international glamour, with weapons of fierce ambition and dirty tricks. At the Nederlander Theatre, two world-class Broadway performers, Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, pose for battle as the grande dames of cosmetics, Arden and Rubinstein, in War Paint. 

Written by Doug Wright, the musical War Paint is based on Lindy Woodhead’s book of the same name and the PBS documentary, The Powder and the Glory, about two giants of industry—immigrant women who created and marketed their exclusive beauty products. It’s a fascinating story, but how it works as musical theater is another matter.

Ebersole and LuPone are outstanding theater singers and interpreters who deliver their solos and duets with distinction. The divas they portray were very different. Ebersole steps graciously through the red door into the pink salon ruled by Canadian-born Florence Nightingale Graham, who evolved into the shrewd, enterprising, and very rich “Elizabeth Arden.”  LuPone, draped in sable, plays the sharp, forthright Polish immigrant, Chala Rubinstein, who began with face creams and using science as “My Secret Weapon.” She expanded into “Helena Rubinstein” and a cosmetic line to compete with Arden. Both are confident and glamorous, dressed to the nines by Catherine Zuber in haute couture with period perfection reflecting the ’30s to the ’60s.

Christine Ebersole & John Dossett

Forging the infant battles of advertising and marketing cosmetics, Arden and Rubinstein studied each other’s techniques and stole what they could. Arden lured away Rubinstein’s manager, played by Douglas Sills. Rubinstein snared away Arden’s husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), who was also her wholesale-division manager. If they ever respected each other, they never showed it, although Rubinstein later states, “With your pretty pink pots and my cream, we might have ruled the world.”

Patti LuPone & Douglas Sills

Like art, fashion, and popular fads, their careers defined the eras of the 20th century. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli adds the rhythms of swing, jazz, and rock, and David Korins’ sets are eye-candy, notable with Kenneth Posner’s pink glow in the Arden salon. Directed by Michael Greif, however, the staging of side-by-side scenes prevents a seamless flow. Scenes switch from Arden’s pink decor to Rubinstein, sleek and moderne, surrounded by her art collection, and occasionally working in her Lucite bed. While the two do not meet on stage until the end of the show, Greif shows both women lunching at the St. Regis on back-to-back banquets. Arden spots her rival but quickly hides her face, eavesdropping, but not recognized. In much the same way, the audience watches, admires, but never emotionally connects with either woman.

Christine Ebersole & Patti LuPone

Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie wrote a catchy pastiche score, often hummable in the style of American standards, with Korie’s barbed lyrics for these single-minded ladies. Performed by Ebersole and LuPone, you could not ask for more glorious renditions, although the songs, while meaningful, are really not memorable. (As for LuPone’s Polish accent, count yourself lucky if you understand one word she sings.) Ebersole’s “Pink,” Arden’s signature color, stands out as a rueful confession. And LuPone’s “Forever Beautiful” admits that her own art of makeup tried to slow the march of time, but a painting lasts and, “It is always your prime!” Singing together, Ebersole and LuPone blend well when, as longtime supporters of women’s rights, they deliver, “If I’d Been a Man,” realizing how their lives could have been different. They end the show remembering the day when there was “Beauty in the World.”

Visually, War Paint looks like a million bucks, but, while the story is uneven, the show presents what you are really coming to see: Ebersole and LuPone shining as they do with five-star brilliance. 

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Category: Broadway Reviews, Musical Theatre Reviews, New York City, New York City Musical Theatre Reviews, Regional

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