Monday, April 24, 2017

With These Two Together, How Could It Go Wrong?

It takes more than talent to change the face of a nation—discover the story of two women who not only made it, but made it on their own. Get a behind-the-scenes look at WAR PAINT, now on Broadway.

There was no love lost between them.
In fact, they were said to be bitter rivals.
Self-made, relentlessly competitive and seemingly self-sufficient, these two pioneering businesswoman built hugely profitable enterprises. Though they were contemporaries with headquarters near one another and though they may have found themselves at the same place at the same time, they never actually met face-to-face.
Elizabeth Arden was like a female Ralph Lauren. She represented the preppie ideal -- old money exuding class and sleek American style. Helena Rubenstein was the perfect counterpoint to all that. She exuded old world imperiousness -- regal, richly European and trimmed to the nines with baubles, bangles, colognes and creams.
Now, these two titans who virtually invented the cosmetics industry as we know it are brought to life on Broadway in War Paint, a musical bio/documentary starring certifiable divas Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. And damned if these two dueling stars don't nail their characterizations from the first moment to the final curtain.
Both LuPone and Ebersole each have defining moments and Big Numbers. LuPone shines in Now You Know and Forever Beautiful while Ebersole stands out in Oh, That's Rich and Pink. And, the both of them match each other note-for-note in Face to Face, Beauty in the World and (most poignantly) in If I'd Been A Man.
War Paint has a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, based both on Lindy Woodhead's 2004 book War Paint and on the 2007 documentary film The Powder & the Glory by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman. Wright, Frankel and Korie are the same team that brought us Grey Gardens (which also featured Ebersole) a few years back. This trio seems to have a fondness for musicals based on a true story and featuring two women in conflict.
In a musical that is dominated by women, LuPone and Ebersole are supported by John Dossett and Douglas Sills, two male cohorts that the divas deem both dispensable and inter-changeable. 
At the height of their success, there was nothing that one woman wouldn't do to sink the other. Unfortunately, their acidic vitriol dominates a somewhat stiff first act that has the characters move about the stage almost as elaborate figures on a chess board. Ebersole inhabits one side of the stage with LuPone on the other and never the twain shall meet. And there's little or no choreography. The saving grace can be found in more than a few humorous lines superbly delivered by Lu Pone and the eye-popping costumes designed by Catherine Zuber. Not since Coco has Broadway seen such a celebration of couture.
It's in the second act (when both doyennes become vulnerable as their empires begin to deteriorate) that these two characters finally become softer, more three-dimensional and more appealing. Here's where they finally begin to emerge from their destructive intractability and show a bit of heart and soul. Here, they come as close as they ever will to acknowledging mistakes and revealing regrets. Sadly, this has to be accomplished in part through a dramatic device -- an actual meeting and dialogue between the two. It's a long time coming but it finally gives the musical not just a deeper meaning but a sort of raison d'etre. 
Be sure of this, however -- War Pain is an absolute tour de force.
It's as if somebody had paired Merman and Martin in a narrative where you couldn't take your eyes off each one of them. It's that good. And you won't see finer drama-in-song on any other Broadway stage right now.
For LuPone and Ebersole, alone and together, War Paint is worth it.

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