War Paint: Expertly Applied to a Mediocre Face
@Goodman Theatre, Chicago
These tickets were bought with great excitement ages ago on the day they went on sale to the public. I was thrilled that this was the reason bringing me back to Chicago and even more thrilled to have the chance to see two of Broadway’s biggest talents together on stage in this theatrical war in a new (and probably) Broadway-bound musical. With a book by the oh-so talented, Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics Michael Korie (the whole Grey Gardens creative team), I was flush with anticipation to see War Paint. It is not often that a brand new musical comes around starring two huge Broadway stars, let alone one that sounds so exciting and is filled with such possibility. The musical, directed by Michael Greif (Grey Gardens again), is about the personal and corporate war between rivals Elizabeth Arden, the blond WASPy cosmetic marketing genius behind the hugely profitably and exclusive Red Door Spa, and Polish-born Helena Rubinstein, the wildly successful makeup mogul. It sounds like a golden idea made in stylistic heaven (bravo to costume designer, Catherine Zuber and hair stylist, David Brian Brown) with two heavyweights in each corner at the height of their game battling it out in front of our very eyes. But with mascara, not boxing gloves.
And I wasn’t wrong. Both Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole are magnificent (although LuPone’s accent initially gets in the way of us catching every delicious line she zings out, but only initially). Their voices both spectacular; unique stylistically and tonally very different from one another, but perfectly matched. They couldn’t be more perfectly paired to embody the culturally and symbolically polar opposites these two ladies were. Listening to them sing separately is a gift, but singing together, surprisingly, is a pure slice of heaven.
I only wish that what they had to sing matched the perfect sound that these two are gifting us with. The music and lyrics, although used most efficiently to tell this complicated and detailed story of their rise to fame and fortune while warring with each other, slowly begins to blend in with each other like the rouge on a cheek. Every moment sounds lovely and we are totally engaged, but the songs don’t vary enough from each other overall. Without cheating and glancing at the program, I couldn’t tell you the name of a song except for the title number. Looking over the titles now, I can vaguely remember what they are attempting to do, what story line they are developing, but not how they sound (beyond the phrase and the song ‘Beautiful ‘). Standouts are ‘If I’d Been a Man’, ‘Face to Face’, and LuPone’s solo, ‘Now You Know’.
Here is where I’m guessing the main problem resides. The details and the idea of the story are very compelling on paper, but in the act of telling this story, the characters go through a lot (Senate hearings, social rejection, World War II), but it’s mostly the details of their 40 year history. They have many obstacles to overcome, including each other and the two men that inhabit their lives, but very little personal change or dynamic realizations. And in the end, the emotionality hasn’t evolved that much from the beginning. The choreographer, Christopher Gattelli attempts to add some pizazz with a few numbers that feel showy and distant (‘Fire and Ice’) because ultimately War Paint is about these two rival titans who are powerful and in charge of their own companies and destinies, way ahead of their time, who detest but ultimately find fire and drive with-in their rivalry. Their feud with each other fueled their passion for success but how many scenes can have these two dynamic ladies seated or standing on opposite sides of the stage singing a (stunning) duet about their parallel challenges. So I appreciate the attempts to give us something else, although all too often it feels like fluff.
The main secondary story line involves the two men in both their lives, the macho Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), Arden’s initial business partner and husband, and the gay gal-pal Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) who initially worked with Rubenstein and helped market her products to great success. It’s a grand attempt to give us something else, and another opportunity to utilize a few different stage movements outside of the two leading ladies walking around each other. Sometimes these two men are diverting and entertaining (the fun and charming song, ‘Dinosaurs’ is a great example of this), but more often then not it feels like posturing gay and macho stereotypes coupled with repetitive nonsense (‘Step on Out’). Either way, it feels forced, because what we really are interested in are these two perfectly paired cosmetic dynamos. But alas, the development of the emotional and psychic space is limited. They start and end with pretty much the same psychological stance, hating while respecting each other. The last scene when these two finally are caught in the same room, face to face, is refreshing and emotionally compelling, but not all that revealing. I did love the under developed but utterly fascinating thesis that is tossed out in a delicious line in that final confrontation, “Did we make women freer, or did we enslave them?”
Maybe a little of both, I would imagine. At one point Lupone’s Helena explains that every morning she looks at herself, and forcibly tells the mirror that she is beautiful, even though she doesn’t really see herself that way in the traditional sense. After she applies her war paint, she dramatically dares the mirror to defy her. It’s perfection, and in many regards, LuPone is daring us too. Just try to defy these two Tony winning stars their stupedous power. The bone structure may be plain and in need of some work, but when expertly applied, this War Paint sure looks and sounds beautiful.
War Paint: Book by Doug Wright; music by Scott Frankel; lyrics by Michael Korie; inspired by the book “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary “The Powder & the Glory” by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman; directed by Michael Greif; choreography by Christopher Gattelli; music direction by Lawrence Yurman; sets by David Korins; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Kenneth Posner; sound by Brian Ronan; hair design by David Brian Brown; makeup design by Angelina Avallone; orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; voice and dance arrangements by Mr. Frankel; voice and dialect coach, Deborah Hecht.
WITH: Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein), Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden), John Dossett (Tommy Lewis), Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming).