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Theater review by Adam Feldman
At first blush, the new Broadway musical War Paint looks like a face-off between rival 20th-century cosmetics magnates Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole). In fact, it’s more about putting faces on. Titans of the beauty industry, Rubinstein and Arden made their names in makeup and put their names on it, but they never actually met—a serious challenge for War Paint’s authors. As the show contrasts their personas and careers, it does what it can to keep them in the same frame—sitting, for example, in adjacent booths at a hotel bar—as it cuts back and forth between their stories. (It’s like a conjoined-twins relative of Coco, the 1969 Coco Chanel biomusical: Co-Coco.) With two narratives to track, and a lot of time soaked up by musical numbers about customers and sales pitches, the show is heavy on primer and contours but light on blending and shading.
There are two excellent reasons to see War Paint, and their names are above the title. As Rubinstein, a Jewish immigrant with a Polish accent and a penchant for gaudy jewels, LuPone owns the stage with the confidence of someone who knows she has earned it; her gloriously rich singing sweeps all else aside. And the two distinct modes of Ebersole’s voice—the lovely head range and the brassier chest—are well suited to the contradictions of the genteel Arden, an Ontario farm girl who became high society’s beauty queen.
In the musical’s final stretch, the stars prove their mettle in memorable back-to-back solos: Arden’s “Pink,” a cri de coeur of forced resignation, and Rubinstein’s “Forever Beautiful,” an inventory of the portraits of her that were drawn by famous artists—the logical extension of her devotion to the painted face. (In LuPone and Ebersole’s final duet, a ruefully conciliatory encounter between their now-elderly characters, they’re like the stars of an Earth-Two Wicked.)
Otherwise, much of War Paint is a blur. It has been crafted with intelligence and care by the team behind 2006’s poignant Grey Gardens: playwright Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. It is well performed by a cast that includes John Dossett as Arden’s tomcatting first husband, Douglas Sills as Rubinstein’s gay right-hand man and Erik Liberman as a crass rising threat to the women’s empires. (Even when inspired by real people, much of the show’s makeup-history lesson is, well, made up.) David Korins’s set and Catherine Zuber’s costumes complement the musical at every turn, and Michael Greif's direction keeps it moving efficiently along. But the show doesn’t make a persuasive case that its stories must be told.
“Did we make women free-er,” sings Arden in the finale. “Or did we enslave them?” That’s a valid question. War Paint’s nails, though attractively polished, only scratch its surface.
Nederlander Theatre (Broadway). Book by Doug Wright. Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Michael Greif. With Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, John Dossett, Douglas Sills. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.