LuPone and Ebersole should and will get this show to Broadway, but it needs some repainting before it’s battle-ready.
Two women, both titans of their industry, share the stage in the Broadway-aimed new musical that opened Monday night at the Goodman. I’m referring, of course, to Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, the two-Tony-Awards-each stars of War Paint, in which they portray another pair of industry titans, rival cosmetics magnates Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. But while Ebersole and LuPone share a stage, they almost never share a scene—one of the structural problems the show needs to get to work on.
War Paint reunites the Grey Gardens creative team of book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and director Michael Greif. So this group knows its way around a bifurcated structure. But in the instance of War Paint, it’s sliced the other way. The musical , based on Lindy Woodhead’s nonfiction book of the same name as well as the documentary film The Powder & the Glory by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman, follows Arden and Rubinstein from the 1930s to the 1960s. The pair’s rivalry was so bitter and obsessive that they not only (at least in the musical’s telling) refused to hear the other’s name spoken in their presence, they also poached each other’s closest male business partners—one of whom had been Arden’s husband.
Wright’s book documents the rises and falls of the women’s businesses in parallel, practically imposing the FCC’s equal-time rule as we bounce back and forth between their arcs, all she-said/she-said. Occasionally in Act I, LuPone and Ebersole get to share a musical number—even the show’s first image, smartly, is of the two actors at vanity tables, extolling their very philosophies of makeup.
Yet even when they’re singing together, they’re acting separately, always in different if overlapping scenes. This works well enough in the first act, which culminates in the rival characters’ attempts to take each other out at congressional hearings cutting them both down a notch.
The choppier second act, though, needs some serious surgery. The matter of trading male consiglieri—as presented here, Arden hiring away Rubinstein’s semi-closeted homosexual ad man Harry Fleming, leading to Arden’s jilted husband Tommy Lewis defecting to Rubinstein—is an undeniably juicy nonfictional tidbit. But in the show as it currently stands, the men carry too much weight.
John Dossett as Lewis and Douglas Sills as Fleming make the most of their roles setting up their ladies’ competition, but the post-firing scene and song, “Dinosaurs,” that they share late in Act II is extraneous, slowing the approach to the show’s climax; by this point, we don’t care about those guys anymore. The same goes for an eminently 86-able number for Charles Revson of Revlon fame, representing Arden and Rubinstein missing the boat on changing trends. Having Revson show up in Act I is a one-second a-ha gag for those who catch it; giving him an extended return song, “Fire and Ice,” feels like filler.
Ultimately, War Paint comes down to two sets of powerhouses: Rubinstein and Arden, and LuPone and Ebersole. But the show’s current structure is so set on keeping their dichotomy separate until the final moment that the actors even get competing what’s-it-all-about character climaxes: Ebersole’s “Pink,” directly followed by LuPone’s “Forever Beautiful.”
When Helena and Elizabeth finally meet, aged, retired and unexpectedly respectful in the show’s final scene, Ebersole and LuPone, pros that they are, milk it for every drop of delayed comic gratification. But I’m afraid it’s not enough. In truth the two never met, but it feels almost criminal to put these two talents on the same stage and keep them away from each other at every turn. Even if it’s a fantasy number to end Act I, War Paint needs to find a way to get these actors interacting more. The mere fact of their joint brilliant presence should win the battle to get this show to Broadway. But for real transcendent status, it’s war out there.
Goodman Theatre. Book by Doug Wright. Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Michael Greif. With Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole. Running time: 2hrs 35mins; one intermission.