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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Unfortunately, that rather touching finale comes too late to save this musicalized, fact-based feud from being a rather hum-drum addition to the current line-up of new Broadway musicals — that's even With Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, two of the musical theater's iconic divas, playing the warring cosmetic titans.
Grey Gardens , Wright's previous collaboration with composer Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, also starred Ms. Ebersole but didn't have the double ticket selling pizzazz of a marque featuring both Ebersole and Lupone. Yet, the Grey Gardens story, also based on real characters and events, was told more interestingly and the music worked better in musical theater terms, than than War Paint's operatic feel and often clunky lyrics.
I didn't read War Paint, the book by Lindy Woodhead nor see the documentary called The Powder and the Glory that served as the musical's inspirational source. But I did read Woodhead's biography of the innovative department store tycoon Harry Selfridge and saw the TV series it seeded which added its own theatrical elements much more successfully.
Of course, Mr. Selfridge didn't have to integrate songs and dancing into its narrative. But Arden and Rubinstein were certainly colorful characters and War Paint might have avoided some of the show's stumbles if it had spent more time on their early years (the show begins with both already established— Rubinstein aged 63 and Arden 57) so more about their rise in a male-dominated world. With a lager biographical canvas the structure of following a scene with Arden with another but similar one with Rubinstein might not have see-sawed quite so predictably into an Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better set-up.
To be fair, Ebersole and LuPone do manage to rise above the less than ideal material. They inhabit their characters fully and sing so beautifully that unmemorable music seems better than it is. And both know how to land a snappy come-back line which makes it too bad that they're not given more like Rubinstein's responding to Tommy Lewis telling her that war is for women with "tell that to Joan of Arc."
The show overall does have a good deal to recommend it: Director Michael Greif (another veteran of Grey Gardens) does his utmost to unify the side by side stories and even have some of the songs delivered as separate yet together duets. David Korins' Art Deco-ish sets are aptly alike yet different for the Arden-Rubinstein scenes. Catherine Zuber's costumes, for the ensemble, as well as the stars, are gorgeous and historically right on the mark for the 1935 to 1964 period covered. And choreographer Christopher Gattelli takes advantage of the ensemble's versatility to create some lively production numbers.
Douglas Sills and John Dossett deserve credit for taking on ensemble parts as well as the characters who show the women's business feud spilling over to their personal lives — Sills as Harry Fleming, Rubinstein's marketing expert, and Dossett as Tommy Lewis as Arden's husband and sales director. But, true to the pat paralleling, both become disgusted by not being given proper authority and so switch loyalties. Interestingly, the men DO meet up long before the women do.
The rather rather sluggish first act does pick up in the far superior second act. The depiction of the Arden-Rubinstein' fiefdom's decline with changing tastes and rise of new customs and fashions introduced by the likes of lipstick magnate Charles Revson and summed up in Sills and Dossett's "Dinosaurs. "
Our divas also come close to each having a show stopper— Ebersole's Arden with "Pink" and LuPone's Rubinstein with an ode to her beloved art collection, "Forever Beautiful." But when all is said and done, War Paint lacks at least one indisputable breakout song like Ebersole's "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" in Gray Gardens.
While Arden and Rubinstein did indeed become dinosaurs, albeit wealthy ones, their brands survive though under the auspices of large corporations. And women who have followed Arden and Rubinstein through that glass ceiling continue to buy creams and powders promising them beauty and eternal youth.
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PRODUCTION NOTES War Paint
Book by Doug Wright
usic by Scott Frankel and Lyrics by Michael Korie
Inspired by the book of the same name by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary The Powder & the Glory by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographer: Christopher Gatelli
Cast: Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein, Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden, John Dossett as Tommy Lewis, Douglas Sills as Harry Fleming; Ensemble, all of whom, including Sills and Dosset, play multiple roles: Mary Ernster, David Girolomo, Joanna Glushak, Chris Hoch,Mary Claire King, Steffanie Leigh,Erik Liberman, Barbara Marineau, Stephanie Jae Park, Angel Reda, Jennifer Rias.
Scenic design by David Korins
Costume design by Catherine Zuber
Lighting design by Kenneth Posner
Sound design by Brian Ronan
Wig design by David Brian Brown
Makeup design by Angelina Avallone
Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin
Music direction by Lawrence Yurman
Stage Manager: Tripp Phillips
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, includes intermission
Nederlander Theatre 208 West 41st Street
From 3/07/17; opening 4/06/17; closing 11/05/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on April 13th
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