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Broadway Reviews

War Paint

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 6, 2017

War Paint Book by Doug Wright. Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Inspired by War Paint by Lindy Woodhead and The Powder & the Glory by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Music Director Lawrence Yurman. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. 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. Cast: Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, John Dossett, Douglas Sills, Barbara Jo Bednarczuk, Patti Cohenour, Mary Ernster, Tom Galantichm David Girolmo, Joanna Glushak, Chris Hoch, Mary Claire King, Steffanie Leigh, Erik Liberman, Barbara Marineau, Donna Migliaccio, Stephanie Jae Park, Angel Reda, Jennifer Rias, Tally Sessions.
Theatre: Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Christine Ebersole and John Dossett
Photo by Joan Marcus

You don't need to be obsessed with beauty products to grasp the timeless axiom about makeup: Less is more. That's also true of the theatre, where judicial application of speech, song, and dance tends to say more and pierce deeper than a colossal brain dump. This lesson has been forgotten, or rather vivisected, in the new musical War Paint that just opened at the Nederlander. In trying to depict the decades-long feud between cosmetics titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, the team behind the cult succès d'estime Grey Gardens has been too interested in slathering on content to notice that the frail skeleton beneath is, at best, half a step away from disintegration.

That it never quite gets there is attributable solely to the show's stars, Christine Ebersole (as Elizabeth) and Patti LuPone (as Helena), and a design team that has made everything look much better than it actually is. It's not that what book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, and director Michael Greif have brought to Broadway (following a run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre last summer) is terrible, per se, but it's so scintillatingly boring that you'll spend more of the two-and-a-half-hour evening fight off an encroaching coma than analyzing lyrics like "In cocktails with one dash of bitters / Do you like them better with two? / Do olives adorn your martinis / More than onions do?" (Come to think of it, that might be a good thing).

Ebersole (herself a Tony-winning Grey Gardens alumna) is nothing but silvery class as the high-minded Elizabeth, and LuPone, despite getting tangled frequently in Helena's Polish accent, contrasts firmly and appropriately with hard-as-granite appeal, highlighting the essential differences between two women who otherwise had a lot in common (both were immigrants who smashed through corporate glass ceilings to forge markets). As you follow the magnates through 30 years (from 1935 to 1964) of jousting, both performers unlock the steely and sympathetic sides of the women they're playing, so that the strength and the hurt are seldom far removed from each other. Elizabeth and Helena are daring and cagey, yes—how could they be anything else?—but as tackled by these glittery veterans, who detail their portrayals down to their velvety lips and lacquered fingernails, you're getting the complete picture of them you need and want, not a stodgy hagiography.

Patti LuPone and Douglas Sills
Photo by Joan Marcus

That, I'm sorry to say, is the end of the good news. Faced with these compelling figures and their fascinating stories, the musical's creators, inspired by Lindy Woodhead's same-titled book and the Ann Carol Grossman-Arnie Reisman documentary The Powder & the Glory, have done everything possible to suppress them and cram them into dust-caked boxes.

They're obsessed with sameness, not just piling on scenes that alternate between one and the other, but mirroring plot points straight down the line. We have to meet Elizabeth, then we have to meet Helena. We have to see how each has a man (Elizabeth's husband Tommy is played by John Dossett, Helena's upper-echelon gay confidant Harry is played by Douglas Sills) she takes for granted, so then we have to see how they swap places. We have to see how each testifies before Congress about the ingredients in her products, then how both help the war effort during the 1940s. Both end up at tables in the St. Regis at particularly heartbreaking moments; both reject the profit-minded advances of Charles Revson, who went on to found Revlon, in the same scene. Both have downfalls related to their unwillingness to compromise on quality, rebounds, and then final dips that occur in flawless tandem. Until, of course, they meet: only once, and only in the final scene.

It shouldn't be a shock that this is the sole time all night that inarguably lands, as the two archnemeses commune over their shared hunger for perfection, trading quips and beauty tips with equally razor-honed facility (and which Ebersole and LuPone play with luscious grande-dame relish). It is not, however, remotely enough, to salve the wounds opened painful predictability that precedes it. Elizabeth and Helena don't register as vividly distinct competitors in their squabble, but rather as a single personality who is hell-bent on proving she got to the top because she earned it. This is counterproductive to the overweening feminist message: They should sizzle and spark because of who they are, and not have to hide behind creaky tropes. Their individuality ought to be paramount, but apparently no one cared enough to make us care.

That could be partially forgiven if the score were strong. Alas, it's riddled with clichés (song titles include "Back on Top," "My Secret Weapon," "Face to Face," "Necessity Is the Mother of Invention"; one lyric begins with the line "You gotta be in it to win it, lady"), and, worse, it fails to translate into musical terms what's at stake and why any of this matters. Only the opening number ("Best Face Forward") attempts to invoke the world that Elizabeth and Helena are to revolutionize, but, structured as a condescending radio commercial, it couldn't do that with any freshness even if it were smarter ("Does my eye shadow go with my clothes? Are my crow's feet a mortal disaster? Do my pores need foundation or plaster?"). It's an utterly forgettable song stack redeemed in the ear, and then only temporarily, by Bruce Coughlin's deft period orchestrations and Lawrence Yurman's spirited 13-piece orchestra.

Ebersole, LuPone, and the cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

The writers are clearly trying to tell a story using the musical and theatrical languages of the time (Elizabeth's numbers have a more conventional, easy-listening ring, whereas Helena's have Eastern-European echoes), but their inert, inept execution ensures it remains grounded. A more free-form, metaphorical approach, perhaps along the lines of "concept" shows like A Chorus Line, Chicago, or Pippin, might have ratcheted up the excitement while also improving efficiency. (A deeper focus on Christopher Gattelli's deliciously pointed dances wouldn't hurt; given its flabby structure, this War Paint is about an hour too long.) When everything must be said twice, usually in succession, plodding is inevitable. Communicating the spirit of the saga is more important from the audience than exact equity between the leading ladies that seems to have been the primary concern.

Considering the circumstances, Broadway stalwarts Dossett and Sills provided astoundingly good support, even if their thankless characters (and especially their second-act duet "Dinosaurs") couldn't be more drab, and, as mentioned, the show looks tops. David Korins's swank scenery is raw upscale style, rendered in great shocks of pink (for Elizabeth) and blue (for Helena); Catherine Zuber's costumes are a parade of clingy, eye-grabbing designs across a dizzying variety of tart genres (all of which make a return appearance in the finale); and Kenneth Posner's lights effortlessly establish Fifth Avenue society, downtown sleaze, boardroom drudgery, and everything in between.

They've captured the look and feel of a bygone New York so adroitly that you might well find yourself paying more attention to the sets and the clothes than the plot—they certainly pack more surprises and color. But be careful: You might miss Ebersole or LuPone demonstrating how stars, properly utilized, can find humanity anywhere. They're brimming with life and energy, devouring every second in pursuit of making sense of two women who were devoted to opening doors for themselves and those who came after. Their stories are worth telling and worth listening to, but not in the tedious form War Paint so soullessly delivers them.