You don't have to go in search of a magnifying glass to discern the active ingredients in the new musical "War Paint," at the Nederlander Theatre, a dual biography of the dueling cosmetics divas Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The magic elixirs are quite plainly the two veteran Broadway stars above the title, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, giving performances of such resplendent force, wit and vivacity that the evening gleams like a freshly applied coat of nail polish catching the light.
WAR PAINT Broadway Reviews
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One of the best scenes is the finale: an invention of the authors, in which Rubinstein and Arden finally meet for the first time ever while in a green room before a speaking engagement. Years have passed - both women walk a bit slower; Arden carries a cane - and after huffs and puffs, in their own way, the moguls come to an understanding. They compare lipstick application tips, admit to - gasp! - admiring each other's products, and finally sing in unison, questioning whether they helped to free or enslave women.
So, though my eyes occasionally glazed seeing "War Paint" for the second time, I wouldn't have missed it, if only to hear its leading ladies' climactic ballads. Ms. LuPone has an ardently sung tribute to the preservative powers of narcissism, during which a gallery of Rubinstein's portraits by famous artists materializes behind her. And in the show's most exquisite number, Arden takes inventory of an existence lived in a pale shade of rose. The song is called "Pink," and as Ms. Ebersole delivers that seemingly cheery word, it is weighted with triumph, regret, defiance and anger, all struggling for ascendancy. It's a reminder of how a single ballad, and a lone interpreter, can capture the full, ambivalent spectrum of a lifetime.
"War Paint" still has a lot going for it, including self-empowered protagonists, high-powered performances, well-crafted period-style songs, the classy aura of old-school New York and the smooth direction of Michael Greif (who staged "Dear Evan Hansen" earlier this season). It ought to be a hit with Broadway's primary ticket-buying demographic: women from the tristate area who use cosmetic products, are familiar with Rubinstein and Arden's important legacies and know that LuPone and Ebersole are musical theater artists of the highest caliber.
But while there is enough substance in "War Paint" to make you feel like everyone involved here is fully aware of the complexity of what these characters represented, the show ultimately demurs when it comes to holding the great titans of makeup, and the men who surrounded them, to moral account. And that is what might just have made "War Paint" a truly great musical, instead of a highly entertaining and provocative one.
Legendary talents Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole play rival cosmetics titans in a highly anticipated new musical that -- hear this, clearly -- is not a two-act cat fight between dueling so-called divas, but rather a smart portrayal of the obstacles faced by a pair of America's earliest female entrepreneurs. "War Paint," directed by Michael Greif ("Dear Evan Hansen") and now open at the Nederlander Theatre, benefits foremost from the remarkable symmetry between its leads.
"War Paint" is never better than when it puts its two heroines in the same space and mind set. Also exquisite is "Pink," which is Arden's "Is that all there is?" moment. These songwriters are good at the reflective; they know how to get under a character's skin and make us feel her pain, as well as her fierce determination.
The musical is an admiring feminist salute to two trailblazing entrepreneurs - the first women to head American corporations that bore their names - whose success was fueled in part by their rivalry. It would seem perfectly timed to follow FX's juicy Feud, though War Paint is more notable for the distanced sparring of its glambitious animus. Despite the bellicose title, this is no wig-pulling, lipstick-smearing catfight. There's delicious bitchery and barbs aplenty, but the more indelible takeaway is the poignancy of all that these women had in common.
The last half-hour or so of War Paint, the beguiling but frustrating new musical about beauty legends Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, is just about everything you could want from a Broadway show. The two leads - Patti LuPone as Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Arden - each get a gorgeous, perfectly conceived solo: "Forever Beautiful" for LuPone and "Pink" for Ebersole. Then comes a rueful duet finale ("Beauty in the World") to complete the arc of their double biography with some twin-engine vocalizing.
The fierce, always formidable lightning rod that is Patti LuPone, plays a heavily accented, not always vocally distinct Rubinstein, while the vital, vivacious Christine Ebersole plays Arden. The production becomes a spellbinding study in the competition of wills. It also explores the difficulties of that their confidantes - Douglas Sills as Rubinstein's gay associate and John Dossett as Arden's husband - faced, as men in a women's world. Michael Greif's production is a multi-layered, extraordinarily textured story of the business of beauty and fashion that lets the women put, as the show has it, their best faces forward. As Arden says, "Every woman has a God-given right to loveliness!"
After a shaky opening, War Paint heats up in the second act. The first zigzags a little fruitlessly in a search for plot and animus between its leads. It begins with a nice idea: An unseen voice baits a group of women about their beauty regimes and why they would benefit from makeup. This mini-circus of insecurities is awkwardly scored, and the orchestra-as happens occasionally elsewhere-is so loud it plays over some of the sung words.
"War Paint" may not be one of the great musicals, but it is an enormously satisfying one. Yes, it is a showcase for established artists hungry for new material. But the show, sleekly and compassionately directed by Michael Greif and created by the team that made the haunting "Grey Gardens," looks at American women from 1934 to 1964 through a new lens - from the lives of two business titans who took lipstick from harlots to high society.
That "War Paint" takes pains to reveal this parallel emptiness speaks to one of the musical's worthiest achievements: making room on a stage, to a degree virtually never seen, for star turns by two sublime female veterans of the musical theater. When Rubinstein and Arden were in their 60s, they were nowhere near ready to be ushered into the wings. And neither, thank goodness, are LuPone and Ebersole.
On the other hand, for those who've grown tired of seeing powerful women forever portrayed as shrill and feuding divas in popular culture (see everything from Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj on "American Idol" to the new Bette Davis-Joan Crawford melodrama "Feud") "War Paint" attempts an alternative -- a portrait of competition between women that is nuanced, empathetic and maybe even exemplary.
Somehow this all manages to be a huge bore though not for want of trying and effortful lung power from the leads in director Michael Greif's high-voltage production. The score, by the talented duo of Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) is as hard on the ear as the book, by their Grey Gardens colleague Doug Wright, is clunky and predictable. The Big Numbers seem equally apportioned between LuPone and Ebersole, but none of the songs achieves a necessary emotional payoff, perhaps because the authors are so intent on not letting one overshadow the other. (Adding to the muddle, LuPone's heavy, unplaceable accent makes her frequently difficult to understand.)
The "Grey Gardens" team is reunited and in good form here. The music feels right for both the individual characters and the progressive time frames. The lyrics suit the characters and serve the plot. And the book is smart and literate - although opening the story in 1935, when both women had already achieved success, deprives us of watching them struggle to rise above their backgrounds and overcome anti-Semitism, in Rubenstein's case, and upper-class social snobbery, in Arden's.
The most flattering number imagines a meeting between the makeup mavens, which gives LuPone and Ebersole the chance to be face-to-face and claw-to-claw. They wonder: Has their work freed women or shackled them? It's a great starting point, but it's actually the last scene - more evidence that not even a thick coat of cosmetics could cover how thin this show is.
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.
The Frankel-Korie score has its pluses and minuses. Korie's words cleverly reveal the convictions as well as the doubts Rubinstein and Arden have about themselves, often simultaneously-the point being made that though the two industry monarchs disliked each other with fervor, they both regularly encountered the same obstacles.