Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

War Paint and the post-War
tale of Bandstand
Review by Rob Lester

Sensibilities and ambience of American eras past are often captured effectively through the prism of the Broadway musical. Here are two from this past season that are new musicals, not based on movies like so many. War Paint is able to vividly paint portraits of two real-life female entrepreneurs (flesh out with imagination and stir well) who were early giants and rivals in their field of beauty products. And Bandstand is a snapshot of the World War II era—but it's not strictly fuzzy, romanticized nostalgia, rah-rah flag-waving, and facsimiles of the era's popular music. It's largely concerned with the harsher realities faced by military veterans readjusting (or not) to civilian life.


Ghostlight Records

In the opening number of another current-season musical enjoying a smash success of the revival kind, a certain Mrs. Dolly Levi brags, "My aplomb at cosmetic art turned a frump to a trump lady fair"; in War Paint, we meet two other enterprising and confident women who knew from "cosmetic art." Creating cosmetics—and marketing them as virtual necessities—were major achievements. Born on Christmas Day in 1872, the long-lived Helena Rubinstein was still alive when Hello, Dolly!'s original 1964 production was an established hit and in the second year of its run. Born on New Year's Eve six years after Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden (née Florence Nightingale Graham) passed away the year following rival Rubinstein's 1965 demise. No love was lost between these two competing to be queen of the make-up world and they could never kiss and make up because they never even met, in reality. But that apparently didn't stop them from deciding they were at war and hated each other. There was conniving, name-calling (although one would not even allow the other's name to be uttered), and even the presumed loyal, key male figure switching sides in the war.

The War Paint cast recording brings us smack dab into the center of their worlds and their competition. The musical finds creative ways to get the two cosmetic queens to "share" some theatrical moments without literally being in the same space at the same time. And, in a rewardingly climactic and exciting imagined encounter between the two, they converse in speech and song. Rather than the ultimate cat fight or bitchfest, it's more a triumph of restraint that is actually touching and quite moving. Everything we hear and relish or recoil from up to that point points to this meeting that is also a meeting of tension and tenderness, with the deft direction of Michael Greif palpable in the timing and silences, the bits of dialogue (Doug Wright) woven through the craft-with-class songs of Michael Korie (articulate and specific, well-rhymed lyrics) and Scott Frankel (ever-satisfying and just-right music).

Rubinstein and Arden, the two larger-than-life, commanding trailblazers who dominate the tale—whether actually present and singing or causing commotions in the worlds they set spinning in their orbits—demand formidable musical theatre personalities. And War Paint's got 'em. Patti LuPone as the preening, heavily-accented, Polish-born Helena is at her dynamic, brash best. The outwardly more refined and graceful Elizabeth, whose ladylike lacquered nails may be just ten polished pink not-quite-pulled-in claws, gets a suavely swaggering performance from the ideally cast iron-and-lace Christine Ebersole. And how pleasing to the mind and ear to hear her bring out—and seemingly relish—the nuances and delicious details in the work of this songwriting team that also served her so well in Grey Gardens (with the same sterling conductor and orchestrator, Lawrence Yurman and Bruce Coughlin) in addition to being in the returning good hands of the keyboardist and associate conductor Paul Staroba, aforementioned bookwriter and director.

The star-powerhouse performances of the two leads are so grandstanding (in a good way) and grandly self-aggrandizing of the solipsistic characters they play (in an appropriate way) that, at least at first through seventh listens, they may overshadow everyone and everything else. The contrast between the two, in sound and styles, makes for a splendid seesaw balance of swan and tiger, tailored silk suit and suit of armor. The divas dazzle. And divas they should be. The songwriting is so facile and confident in structure and well-strung phrases that the personality-plus characterizations and fierceness of our charismatic stars could demand more attention. But dig into the melodies that avoid cliché and clutter and the smart, unforced rhymes that you don't see coming or tug insistently at your ear in a "You see what I did there?" ploy for attention. Words flow just as the music does, in sophisticated but entertaining streams that could be stream of consciousness of the most "natural" expressions of intentions and revelations, attitudes, and the digging-in of heels.

Especially noteworthy and refreshing are ever-welcome inner rhymes, sometimes using one syllable of a multi-syllable word wedded to a one-syllable word partner. It's a scattering of many verbal mini-jewels here and there while the priority is the storytelling and characterization. Likewise, some of the music is made up of juicy tiny bits so likeable in small, concise doses, like a banquet of all the appetizers on a extensive restaurant menu. And while the melody lines might not be showy or jaunty or sweepingly dramatic, we wouldn't want that here. Some have a coiled quality or an insistent confrontational manner to match the personalities of the privileged executives. Others have a pleasing step-by-step methodical way about them, like the stringing of pearls. I'd love an album-length instrumental version of the score.

Generally speaking, the orchestrations are punchy and packed with colorful flourishes, splashy when splash does the trick ("Step on Out"). "Somehow she makes me cry beneath my smile" is a self-aware line suddenly appearing within "Better Yourself" for Ebersole, the orchestration otherwise reinforcing the decidedly swirling structure of the music. When the agenda is evoking a deeper knowingness and yearning, strings do the deed as subtext while the bravado with brass still struts in the spotlight.

Christine Ebersole's skill at acting within the singing of a number comes with her rue and ruminations over Arden's trademark color: In "Pink," she finds so many ways to add emotion in her uttering the title word: here wistful, there resentful, at one point so worked up that she can barely say it, and then climaxing with the declaimed insistence that "I never even liked the color!" This brings chills. Patti LuPone, meanwhile, cavorts and cavils, her accent allowing her to take her time rolling her R sounds and defensively sneering. And when Helena's guard is down, we have a glimpse of the driven woman's disappointments with her family and personal life. The men in their lives don't get the same kind of big spotlights (I guess that seems about right), but one still longs to hear more from them. Or is it just that we know there's more potential because they're played by stalwarts Douglas Sills, known for broader styles and cock-of-the-walk showmanship with cheerier humor, and the solid John Dossett. Bitterness here isn't so entertaining—maybe because the distaff stars have that sewn up by the time we get to hear much from the guys.

It's myopic to think that an actual love for make-up makes this a story that would mainly appeal to the target female audience Rubinstein and Arden sought to sell their wares. It has something to say about gender roles, career as self-image, the drive for success, and the manipulation of the purchasing public by playing on perceived needs and insecurities. What's in a brand name? As a song in the musical The Gay Life stated about wine, "It's the label on the bottle that they buy." Such observations are not lost on those who let their thoughts be colored by War Paint and its underlying messages and nagging questions. The label on this musical bottle is the invaluable record label—Ghostlight—bringing musical theatre devotees yet another superbly produced aural souvenir, this one about a show that is about visuals, beauty that may be "only skin deep," but has something deeper that resonates. So glad it's been preserved!


Broadway Records/ Yellow Sound Label

It's just closed (September 17), after a disappointingly short run of five months on Broadway, but Bandstand's score is on the Broadway Records and Yellow Sound label and that's the good news; those who miss it already or simply missed the chance to see it on stage can listen and listen (and swing and sway). An original American musical, not based on a book about famous people (like War Paint) or an old non-musical movie (like Groundhog Day, et. al), it features attractive music composed by Richard Oberacker and lyrics and book that he collaborated on with Robert Taylor. While hardly spring chickens or newcomers to theatre or music, this is the first show on Broadway for both. Their period-evocative numbers are majorly enhanced by the work of orchestrators Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen (the latter also the arranger and co-producer of the CD with Michael Croiter). The disc includes snappy instrumental numbers.

Monday morning quarterbacks will cluck that it was a hard sell anyway; and what were they thinking—a period musical would have to be a major "downer" if, between dance steps, audiences are marched into the world of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Must trauma and terpsichore belong in separate shows, never to mix, lest we mix up the audience about where we're going and why?

The music-drenched sounds of the big band era suggest pep and joy in the days after World War II ended (in 1945), mirroring victory celebrations and a sense of relief for military folks to be "back home" in the good old U.S. of A. But, in this story, all that takes somewhat of a backseat to the cold reality: switching mindsets is not being a piece of cake, despite the sugary frosting of nostalgia and reunions and letting freedom ring. A period musical painted with another kind of "war paint"—pastiche and patriotism—is what old musicals on film and stage led many think is the way to go, but there's a convincing and indeed inarguable, very concise reality statement: War is hell. No tidal wave of "alternate facts" can change that fact or that people can be unchanged after seeing comrades and so-called enemies die.

Naysayers, hold your horses. It's by no means primarily doom and gloom. There is indeed plenty of happy, finger-snappy pizzazz here. Sugar-coated mindless mirth and platitudes rear their sunny heads, and one can sometimes blithely go along for the ride, especially if listening to the songs out of context. But, just when we think we've kept the memory dragons at bay, we're snapped back to the cold, hard facts of life—and of death as something witnessed and haunting the veterans. Our leading man, the war vet recent returnee played by the instantly sympathetic Corey Cott, would like to believe the optimism that, upon returning home, everything will be "Just Like It Was Before," as the lively ensemble promises him—over and over and over. The lyric simplistically suggests: "Any bad news you can just ignore," but he knows it's way easier said than done: "The world is ending and we're pretending ..." In the song with the same name as his character, "Donny Novitski," he faces that "Donny needs something to block out the mem'ries and break this insomnia spell." It may be whisky. Or, more positively, it may be his love and work—music—that does it; he is determined to put together a band and win a national competition. The cast members who play those band members also play their own instruments. This makes things more organic and believable onstage. (Cott is on piano.)

One of most steadily employed musical theatre female leads of the last several years, Laura Osnes, plays Julia, the widow of Donny's army buddy and, guess what, Julia is a swell singer and Donny's band hires her away from her church gig. Giving the actress more to play than just another soprano ingenue, she gets to show a gamut of emotions, some playfulness, belt, and have some real drama. For example, in "Welcome Home," her first lines are sobering ones she delivers with gravitas:

"Johnny made it home
Most of him, at least
Had three operations
But the pain has not decreased.
Nick learned to survive
Means you never trust.
Once you've seen the worst in man,
How can you adjust?"

The score is somewhat uneven. In making its points, a less-is-more credo serves the piece better than the out-and-out "preachy" parts of songs that underestimate the audience's ability to "get it" and overstate things. This number, the finale, becomes one of them, possibly overreaching in its intention to be sure the sorrows are firm in our minds before the upbeat "Epilogue."

Playing Julia's mother, Beth Leavel, so effective in comic, high-energy roles (like as the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone), doesn't have much opportunity to shine as a strong, plucky personality as she's placed in the earnest, advisor role, singing about whether or not life's happenings are random.

Bandstand shall not go down in Broadway history as the brightest or longest-burning light on the Great White Way this season, but there's much that glitters, making an investigatory listen a recommended way to spend 73 minutes. And, if you have a soft spot for big band/swing music, as I do, it's more of a "must."

(Meanwhile, back in the reality of life in 2017, star Laura Osnes isn't idle upon Bandstand's closing. She's making a return to the bandstand at Manhattan's Café Carlyle cabaret stage, singing Rodgers & Hammerstein for the last five nights of September.)

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