Richard, Stephen, Robert, and I went to see *War Paint* on 4/14/17. I liked it, Richard did not like it, Stephen and Robert didn't like it at ALL.
It's a new musical about the rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, makeup magnates of the 30s through the 60s. It's like *Mary Stuart* for the early 20th century - - two powerful women squaring off against each other. And just as was the case for Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, the two women never met each other in real life so the dramatists felt the need to create a scene where they come face to face.
The show has music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie, a book by Doug Wright, and is directed by Michael Grief. These same four guys did *Grey Gardens,* which ran on Broadway from 2006 to 2007 and was one of the most brilliant shows I've ever seen. *War Paint* seemed like the perfect vehicle for a reunion by this team, but it doesn't come anywhere near the quality of *Grey Gardens.*
My diagnosis of the show: is it the good turtle soup, or merely the mock? It had all the verve and first-class showmanship of a satisfying Broadway musical. The songs were well-paced, though Richard thought they all sounded the same after a while. Most of the songs were for one of the two leading ladies, and they're either brittle or ballads (brittle ballads). The design was stunning: the sets, the costumes, shoes, and hats were to die for. And clearly a lot of time went into careful calibration of how much time the two leading ladies have onstage - - not just how many songs they have, but how much dialogue they have. I told Richard that Handel did the same thing when he was writing an opera for two major divas, he had to be sure that it was precisely balanced.
So anyway, it was a slick and professional Broadway product...but something was missing. It felt a little airless. Maybe the problem is that there's not such a compelling story there. Maybe the best articulation of the problem is a discussion of the best number in the show: Arden and Rubenstein come up against Revlon and other dime-store makeup makers, and they put a TV commercial for Revlon's Fire and Ice onstage. The number had zip, it was exciting, it had a rhumba beat that quickened my pulse a little bit. Maybe it's because it was sung by a secondary character, maybe it was a much-needed change of flavor in the music, but it pointed out how flat the rest of the show was.
I should mention the two leading men before I get to the two leading ladies. John Dossett played Arden's husband and business partner, and Douglas Sills played Rubenstein's marketing expert and Man Friday. They aren't given a lot to do, and they do it well. Their one featured number is a duet for the two men where they portray the two women as dinosaurs, with a bit of high-pitched screeching and baring of talons. That song was one of the dumbest things I've ever seen onstage. It was baffling that it wasn't cut or replaced in previews.
Lupone is given the final bow, and she IS the bigger star. She's a performer of incomparable power and force of personality, perfect to play tough cookie Helena Rubinstein. There was a huge problem with her performance, and that was her Polish accent. WAY too thick, I understood maybe 2/3 of what she said and sang (our friends John and David said she must have scaled it back since they saw it, because they MISSED 2/3 of what she said). It seemed very telling that there were three moments when she stopped the show, and they were all for line readings, not in a song.
The music favors Ebersole, it's perfect for her very pretty voice. Lupone is a sports car, she's not meant to drive only 30 miles an hour. Ebersole was lovely and effortless. Both of these actors are real pros and deliver world-class performances, and it's a thrill to see them onstage together in a show about powerful women. I just wish the show itself had been better.
PS: I borrowed my diagnosis line, "Is it the good turtle soup, or merely the mock?", from Cole Porter. It's from "At long last love." Another great lyric from that song: "Is it for all time, or simply a lark? Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park?" Here's a groovy recording by Keely Smith: