BWW Review: WAR PAINT at Atlanta Lyric Theatre
On Friday evening, Atlanta Lyric Theatre, in a display of pure bravura, opened their 40th Anniversary Season with the regional premiere of the musical War Paint, a new tuner with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie that tells the story of the rise and fall of two of the cosmetics industry's most notable trailblazers, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. The musical opened on Broadway in 2017 to lackluster reviews and played only 269 performances before shuttering, even with two of Broadway's biggest divas, Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, at the helm. There's a reason for this. War Paint has what I like to call Sleepless-in-Seattle Syndrome when I'm talking to a group of juiced-up creative writing students. That's a story that, like the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan film, has this problem: the characters don't share enough time together in scenes to generate the type of tension needed to sustain interest over the course of the story. The musical places too many limitations on itself by remaining true to the real-life story with includes the fact that Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden didn't actually know each other in real life and ends up painting a stage where the two principal characters are separated by an imaginary wall that can't ever be scaled, not even by the most talented actors. But, with a good cast led by their artistic director, Mary Nye Bennett, an absolute mega-talent in the role of Helena Rubenstein, and gorgeous scenic design by Stephanie Polhemus, Atlanta Lyric Theatre offers up an excellent evening at the theater under the direction of a capable Susan G. Reid.
The musical, which spans the time between the 1930s and the 1960s, begins its biographical study of the cosmetics pioneers just as they are starting to enjoy professional success. One has a pretty pink box. The other has the science. What results is a 40-year tug-of-war in which the women try to outdo one another. But the most compelling element of the story is that the women, regardless of their battles with one another, both reign supreme in a world where men are typically the power players.
The Lyric's cast is a solid one, but the brightest jewel in their casting crown is unarguably Mary Nye Bennett as Helena Rubenstein. Not only does she deliver the most impressive vocals but she also creates the most memorable character. Bennett is so at home with her heavy Polish accent and her fully-lived-in ethos of the strong female overcoming obstacles that we can't help but enjoy her journey. Pamela Gold, in the role of Elizabeth Arden, is also well-sung and delivers a good performance, but both women are fighting to get upstream against a considerably tough current, and Arden, as written here, is much more reserved, giving Gold fewer opportunities to claim the hearts of her audience.
The scenic design by Stephanie Polhemus is, for the most part, extraordinary. The upstage wall is flanked by art-deco iron grating adorned with lipstick tubes and compacts. Light shines through the grating, sometimes blue, sometimes pink, helping the audience to place themselves within the separate, minimally-rendered worlds of Rubenstein and Arden. Ben Rawson's gorgeous lighting design and Polhemus's set are most notably showcased in a number entitled "If I'd Been a Man" where the two principal actors sing about their parallel struggles to be women in a man's world while a male actor with a briefcase and bowler hat, totally in silhouette, moves in slow motion back and forth across the upstage wall. That number alone is worth the price of admission.
War Paint is not a musical that's going to enjoy a long life in regional theatre. There are too many unforgettable songs that don't move the story forward, and the characters aren't memorable enough for us to care if they ever meet at the top of the Empire State Building at midnight. But Atlanta Lyric has given Atlanta an interesting look at two powerful women who did change the face of the world - literally. That's a pretty powerful way to start a 40th Season.