Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole Slather the Make-Up Excessively in "War Paint"

Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole Slather the Make-Up Excessively in "War Paint"
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Friedrich Schiller decided that even though Elizabeth I and half-sister Mary, Queen of Scots never actually met, they really must do just that if his Mary Stuarda was to heft any dramatic weight. So they do meet, and the rest is theater-annals history.

Schiller’s example has apparently meant a great deal to Doug Wright. He decided that when writing about his two queens who evidently aren’t on record as confronting—those would be cosmetics queens Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole)—he’d best make like Schiller and bring them together.

At what point he does that in his new tuner won’t be revealed here, but let it be said that it’s the high point of what’s amusingly called War Paint, a musical decked out with songs for two-time Tony winners LuPone and Ebersole by Ebersole’s Grey Gardens tunesmiths, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie.

Wright has his fun with the made-up sequence, having the face cream-et-al ladies explicitly agree that, as far as their public is concerned, the tete-a-tete never happened. Playing the scene, LuPone and Ebersole, both of whom have done great work earning those Tonys, enjoy themselves immensely.

Otherwise throughout the gorgeously produced (Catherine Zuber’s costumes and David Korins’s sets repeatedly wowing the patrons), Rubenstein and Arden may sit next to each other on adjacent St. Regis Hotel banquettes and overhear illuminating information, but they keep their distance. This is even as, only a few feet apart, they sing in sequence and/or in unison.

While keeping their distance, they indicate graphically, as bookwriter Wright has it, why they continue unintroduced. They’re calculating businesswomen in competition. They’re both certainly out to legitimize beauty products for all women, but they’re also determined to snare local clientele and consumers everywhere into using their products. They both trade on women’s nearly universal belief that cosmetics will supply what’s lacking in God-given natural beauty.

In other words, neither Polish Jew Rubinstein or Ontario emigré Arden are likable. Quite the opposite. They’re eminently unlikable, and in some way their shared dedication to superficial allure is a metaphor for outward beauty being deficient when compared with interior beauty.

Perhaps Wright is attempting through these always well-dressed, well-coiffed (David Brian Brown, the wig designer), impeccably made-up but resolutely off-putting women to make a strong statement about the tyranny of misguided attitudes toward true beauty. If so, he doesn’t succeed. He just hangs his script on a pair of predominantly uninviting protagonists.

Ironically—or maybe it isn’t irony—it’s not only Rubinstein and Arden who are distanced from themselves and also distanced from an audience eager to admire someone for more than promotional skills. No, Wright’s isn’t a veiled misogynistic screed. It turns out that the men in the ladies’ lives are also alienating figures.

Arden’s husband/business partner Tommy Lewis (John Dossett) and Rubinstein’s closeted gay advertising whiz Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) are every bit as repugnant as the women keeping them under their manicured, polished thumbs.

Both Lewis and Fleming are dumped by, respectively, Arden and Rubinstein, and when they are, what do you think they do? They switch allegiances. The like-minded cads are willing and able to reveal all company secrets to which they’ve been privy, like questionable face cream ingredients.

So here in War Paint is a supposed beauty product of its own that isn’t especially inviting—with its four focal characters not types you’d want to invite into your homes. Granted, unappealing focal characters can function meaningfully in drama or comedy but only if they evidence qualities more satisfying than the rampant disregard these four combatants have for each.

And that’s no matter how well the Korins sets (often featuring panels of cosmetics racks), the Zuber clothes, the Kenneth Posner lighting (often making the cosmetics racks glow), the Brown wigs and the Brian Ronan sound represent another impressive instance of this season’s abundant top-flight Broadway craftsmanship.

So the assured performances LuPone, Ebersole, Dossett and Sills give, while pungently impressive under Michael Greif’’s efficient direction don’t compensate for the book Wright offers—a book “inspired,” as the programs states, by Lindy Woodhead’s War Paint and The Powder & the Glory by Anne Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman.

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.

As song follows song—and too often sounds much like what just preceded it—there’s the sense that Frankel and Korie had the task of offering LuPone and Ebersole exactly the same amount of material right down to the syllable, right down to the concluding high note. By my perhaps faulty count, LuPone comes out one song ahead of Ebersole. The drawback is that LuPone has fallen into old consonant-lazy vocal tricks sometimes compounded by the Polish accent.

Incidentally, the same balancing act affects the Dossett-Sills numbers. The men are accorded two duets—“Step On Out” and “Dinosaurs”—that do little to make Tommy and Harry attractive blades.

Interesting trivial fact #1: Raoul Dufy shows up as a minor character for the simple reason that Rubinstein convinced herself she was beautiful because painters (Picasso, too) saw her that way. Or pretended to. Rubinstein’s song “Forever Beautiful,“ rendered underneath an array of Rubinstein portraits, is testament to her assumption. Arden has already sung “Pink” about her signature color. It’s a languid ditty not to be confused with “Think Pink” from Funny Face.

Interesting trivial fact #2: Charles Revson (Eric Liberman) edges in early and then later when his Revlon line overtakes Arden and Rubinstein for their having ignored the youth market. His later drop-by leads to a number, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, built around the famous 1950s “Fire and Ice” campaign for which Dorian Leigh (Steffanie Leigh here) posed in icy silver sequins and fiery red silk wrap that Zuber meticulously recreates.

If only the entire show blended its fire and ice quite so beguilingly.

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