I liked War Paint. Which is a bit sad, because I wanted to love it. Having Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersol on stage in a musical is magic. And their voices are sublime. But a lot of this story just didn’t click.
Christine Ebersol plays Elizabeth Arden, the founder of one of the first beauty empires. It is referenced, in passing, that Elizabeth Arden made cosmetics acceptable for the American woman, where it has previously be the province of street walkers and entertainers. Patti Lupone plays Helena Rubinstein, an Eastern European beauty “scientist” looking to make women healthy and beautiful. Ms. Lupone is also saddled with a heavy and unfortunate accent, which may be true to the character but comes off a bit moose and squirrel.
These two women don’t interact, but are still extremely competitive with each other. The characters face similar delimeas at the same time, quite often in a faux split screen mode. Miss Arden and Mrs. Rubinstein plot to take over the beauty world, always at the expense of the other. John Dosset and Douglas Sills play the men caught up in their personal and professional feud. The competition is laid out with differences in color and tone, but with their more obvious similarities pointedly expressed to the audience.
The production lacks subtly, the pinks of Arden versus the black and white of Rubinstein, but it is nonetheless rich and beautiful. War Paint signposts its intentions a mile away, but you cannot argue with the effectiveness of its presentation. Much like the products it touts, War Paint sucks you in, even though you know it is 75% hype and 25% product.
It is a function of the show that the women, while not interacting, still question the same things at the same time: what it is like to be a woman in the business world, what it is like to grow old in a business marketed at youth, what it is like to give up a personal life for a professional life and what it is like to be an outsider forever. Each question leads to a song and scene, nice and tidy.
War Paint is big and sumptuous and as subtle as foghorn. With these two actresses, it all works for the most part. No amount of chintz, eclectic hats and scenery is going to pull your gaze from Ms. Ebersol or Ms. Lupone when they are hitting the notes they hit. These women own the stage.
Near the end of the show, the two ladies, now quite old, meet in person for the first time. Their chemistry, dialog and wit make the audience long for a version of this show where they interacted more, even if it wasn’t historically accurate.
Director Michael Greif keeps everything humming along quite well. He is aided by some great set design by David Korins. The story is by Doug Wright, with music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. The songs are well sung by the cast and move the action forward, but are not particularly memorable. With these two women, I cannot recommend War Paint enough. But without them, I am not sure I would recommend it at all.
War Paint | Book: Doug Wright, Music: Scott Frankel, Lyrics: Michael Korie | Director: Michael Greif | Cast: Patti Lupone, Christine Ebersole, John Dossett and Douglas Sills