War Paint continues at the Nederlander Theatre, New York.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
It has a great title, a great concept and two great female stars of Broadway theatre heading a talented company. There’s also a bounty of handsome costumes and sets, but beyond all this, things about War Paint get a bit patchy, even a little blemished, as they might say in your local beauty salon.
The show details the cut-throat competition between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, trail-blazing entrepreneurs who are credited with shaping today’s cosmetics industry. Patti LuPone plays Rubinstein: Christine Ebersole portrays Arden. Each brings unstintingly all the anticipated lustre and know-how associated with their names and careers to the production.
The carry like champions the burden of some oft-cumbersome storytelling weighed further down by a score that tries hard to replicate the sound and styles of the story’s period (1935-1964, to be exact) but sparkles only now and then.
It’s somewhat of a disappointment since the creative team is the same one responsible for Grey Gardens, in which Ebersole scored her most celebrated and Tony-winning role. Those creators include composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, book writer Doug Wright and director Michael Greif.
The show is inspired by the book War Paint by Lindy Woodhead, and the documentary film, The Powder and the Glory, which was based on the book.
One problem that Wright may have faced in writing the script is that in real life his two heroines, according to common knowledge, never met face to face. Except for a final scene, in which the two near the end of their lives confront each other before being honoured at a charity gala, Wright sticks to that probability. It robs the script of the tensions and probable fireworks that might have resulted in such a meeting or meetings.
Instead, the script is dutifully loaded with details of how the two came from impoverished beginnings, worked to build their sales, stole product ideas as well as executives from each other and faced similar successes and setbacks.
Each is called separately before a government hearing on the safety of their products, and they are forced to list their product ingredients on their packaging. It causes their sales to drop, but then they rebound when reshaping their products as morale-builders during the Second World War.
We see both of them suffering rejections from a prejudiced society. Arden’s application for membership in a blue-blooded women’s club is rejected because she earns her money rather than being born or wedded to it. Rubinstein’s move into a lavish penthouse is denied because of implied anti-semitism.
A feminist sensibility runs appropriately through the proceedings, and each woman gets to sing the lament ‘If I’d Been a Man’, supposing how much easier their lives would have been if they had been born male. There’s also some light questioning as to whether their stock actually helped women or trapped them into a regimen of expensive products.
On occasion, bursts of bright dialogue enliven things, some of it taken directly from the women themselves, such as Rubinstein’s adage: “There are no ugly women, just lazy ones.”
However, as the show bounces back and forth between the similar happenings affecting each woman, it begins to feel like you’re watching an interlocking double feature of strangely alike by-the-number biopics.
That numbing feeling is relieved somewhat by the fact that each star gets her own compelling 11 o’clock number.
Unable to fend of the competition from a barrage of popular-priced products, Arden is being forced out of her deteriorating company by her board of directors, who agree to pay her for the continuing use of her name and signature colour. In the song ‘Pink’, Ebersole expounds grandly on her dislike of the colour, building to a fiercely explosive climax.
Then, LuPone richly fulfils her opportunity for 11 o’clock grandeur with ‘Forever Beautiful’. After conferring with lawyers on how to dispose of her collected treasures of a lifetime after her death, she reflects on how she will always be beautiful in the various portraits she has had painted of herself by noted artists.
But things don’t stop there. They become a bit too much, when in that aforementioned final scene, the two women join in a duet celebrating how they contributed to ‘Beauty in the World’.
With her continental accent and brash rejoinders, LuPone has the more flamboyant characterisation. Ebersole’s Arden is marked by a softer demeanour that only partially masks a hard-headed businesswoman. The score also gives LuPone plenty of opportunities to show off her distinctive entwining of the Broadway belt, while Ebersole’s numbers are embroidered with filigrees of lovely high notes.
Adroitly representing the masculine side of things in this essentially female epic are John Dossett and Douglas Sills.
Dossett’s character, Tommy Lewis, starts out as both Arden’s husband and her chief sales executive, while Harry Fleming, played by Sills, is the top guy working for Rubinstein.
After Fleming and Rubinstein have an argument over his homosexuality, Arden hires him. That doesn’t sit well with Lewis, who goes out on a girl-chasing bender, resulting in divorce and his going to work for Rubinstein.
The two guys, as expected, get together toward the end of the show to express their feelings about their respective bosses, ‘Dinosaurs’.
Oddly enough, the most scintillating tune is a Latin-beat production number involving only peripherally the principals. In ‘Fire and Ice’, the incipient cosmetics tycoon, Charles Revson (the founder of Revlon) promotes his product line with a quartet of models.
Erik Liberman’s Revson is an exuberantly old-style song and dance man-cum-salesman with a New York-ese accent, playfully cavorting with a quartet of models, led by Steffanie Leigh.
And just to make sure all important ingredients are listed, let’s note that the costumes are by Catherine Zuber, and sets – highlighted by walls of gleaming bottles of stuff – are by David Korins. The lighting is by Kenneth Posner.
Christopher Gattelli did the choreography and Bruce Coughlin the orchestrations. Lawrence Yurman is musical director.
War Paint may not make you feel beautiful all over. But at the same time, you’ll hardly feel that you’ve wasted your money on some totally useless product. It’s well-packaged with some formidable ingredients.
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