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May 29, 2017

"War Paint" Review


Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole ()

 

By Anita Gates

 

Thinking of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden as real people isn’t easy, even after seeing “War Paint” at the Nederlander Theater. Luckily, the show’s stars, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole, are better than real, and they make this new musical worth seeing.

 

Beyond the star power, the production itself – the story of two glamorous 20th-century cosmetics entrepreneurs who loathed each other -- has its assets and its moments. Catherine Zuber’s period (midcentury) costumes are spectacular. Sometimes a stage full of cast members will look color-coordinated in the way American women in the 1950s loved to match dress, purse and shoes precisely. (Lavender shoe dye was very popular for a while.)

 

In the Act II number “Pink,” which seems to be an audience favorite, Ebersole (who plays Arden) extolls the color’s virtues while surrounded by salon customers and employees all dressed – nay, swathed -- in the same color. One presumes that Michael Korie, who wrote the lyrics, was inspired by “Think Pink!,” the pastel paean sung by Kay Thompson as a  fashion-magazine editor in the 1957 film “Funny Face.” 

 

The “War Paint” duets are killer. Actually, the two great women never met, but we can  imagine that the two were standing in different spots in New York, thinking the same thoughts, leading them to join voices in numbers like “Face to Face” and “If I’d Been a Man” and the finale, “Beauty in the World.” For the five theatergoers who don’t know this: Patti LuPone has been a Broadway megastar since she played the title role in “Evita” in 1979 and won her first Tony. Her second was for “Gypsy.” And so on. Christine Ebersole won her first Tony for “42nd Street” (2001) and her second for “Grey Gardens” (2007).

 

That’s the thing about “War Paint.” It’s the whole team from “Grey Gardens,” reunited: Michael Greif, the director; Doug Wright, the book writer; Scott Frankle, the composer; and Korie, the aforementioned lyricist. “Grey Gardens” was about two older women who had a hostile relationship, and it was brilliant. So what went wrong this time? Maybe the premise was too artificial.

 

The show takes place between 1935 and 1964, and both cosmetics queens were goddesses to female consumers of the “Mad Men” era, but both were successful entrepreneurs long before that. Rubinstein, who was born in Poland in 1872, opened her first New York cosmetics salon in 1915. Arden, born in Canada to Scots-Cornish parents in 1878, opened her first Red Door salon in 1910. Rubinstein, they say, invented the concept of the “day of beauty,” while Arden is credited with thinking up the “beauty makeover,” as well as creating the first destination beauty spa, Maine Chance, back in the 1930s.

 

If you’ve never seen LuPone before or never seen Ebersole before, in person in a book musical, this is as good a chance as any. And possibly the only chance to see them together. They’re both Tony-nominated this year, as are the show’s costumes and sets. 

 

Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street, warpaintmusical.com.

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