Book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Michael Greif
Opened April 6, 2017
Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street
|Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole (center) in War Paint (photo: Joan Marcus)|
Like Feud, FX Network’s series about the legendary antagonism between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the new musical War Paint dramatizes the battle royale between the most powerful women in the beauty industry: Helene Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Unlike Feud—whose eight one-hour episodes methodically delved into the decades-long fighting between Davis and Crawford—War Paint has to confine its fascinating story to 2-1/2 hours, which often impedes the show’s dramatic momentum, despite the star-wattage of leading actresses Patti Lupone (Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (Arden).
That’s not to say War Paint fails—its flaws are not fatal—but the difficulty is that, in real life, Rubinstein and Arden (probably) never met. So director Michael Greif and his collaborators Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) have to cover that up by cleverly shuttling back and forth between the two women in their respective lives and careers, with their main men doing double duty: Rubinstein’s right-hand man Harry Fleming and Arden’s husband Tommy Lewis, each of whom left his boss and went to work for her direct competitor.
And War Paint works—up to a point. Catherine Zuber’s glamorous costumes, David Korins’ sleek sets and Kenneth Posner’s marvelous lighting provide needed visual luster whenever the drama or the music hits not infrequent lulls. Greif’s staging and Frankel/Korie’s songs place our protagonists center stage, rubbing shoulders even when on separate narrative tracks. Luckily, their stories are arresting enough to sustain interest even when, especially in Act II, everything starts to become repetitious or, conversely, is given short shrift.
For example, in the early 1940s, when both women’s companies ingeniously join the war effort to keep selling their beauty products even during severe rationing, a witty song, “Necessity Is the Mother of Invention,” covers it: then we suddenly fast-forward to the post-war 1950s, which introduces new business hurdles like appealing to teenage girls instead of their mothers. Cramming several decades’ worth of Rubinstein and Arden’s professional and personal intrigues reduces the show to a “greatest hits” package of highlights.
For War Paint to work well, it needs a top-notch cast, which it happily has. Heading an excellent supporting cast are sidekicks Douglas Sills (Fleming) and John Dossett (Lewis), who make the most of their time onstage dealing with shifting personal and professional allegiances or running into each other and commiserating despite their differences. Their droll duet, “Dinosaurs,” is an amused and bemused number about the twilight of their careers.
But Lupone and Ebersole are the main reasons to see War Paint, their electric performances as the tough-as-nails Polish immigrant and the Canadian farmer’s daughter complementing each other perfectly. Lupone’s thick Eastern European accent is initially impenetrable, especially while singing, but the ear adjusts and her complex portrayal rings through loud and clear by the time of her climactic song, “Forever Beautiful.” Likewise, Ebersole’s inimitably plucky portrait culminates in her big showstopper, “Pink.” Both of these 11 o’clock numbers give our legendary ladies what they deserve: a chance to bring the house down. And they don’t disappoint—even if War Paint sometimes does.