Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Diss and Makeup: Legendary Ladies Help Make 'War Paint' More Than a Cosmetic Success -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

War Paint
a world premiere musical
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 21

Of the myriad Tony Award winners and other musical theater luminaries I've seen over the years--Bernadette Peters, Sutton Foster, Idina Menzel, Kristen Chenoweth, Kelli O'Hara, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, Audra MacDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Joanna Gleason, Bebe Neuwirth, Harvey Fierstein, Mandy Patinkin, Michael Cerveris, Alan Cumming, George Hearn, Michael Crawford, Nathan Lane, etc., etc., etc.--I don't think there are any I hold in higher regard than Patti LuPone.

Hence, I feel quite fortunate to have seen her onstage 10 previous times, though only once in a full-scale production—as opposed to a concert or concert staging of a musical—which was in Gypsy on Broadway.

And I was thrilled when I learned that Chicago’s Goodman Theater, to which I have been a subscriber for most of this century—and where, it’s worth noting, I have seen Nathan Lane, Diane Lane, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Daniels, Victoria Clark, Jefferson Mays and other pretty esteemed names—would host the pre-Broadway world premiere musical, War Paint, starring LuPone and another two-time Tony winner, Christine Ebersole (who I had seen in Grey Gardens on Broadway).

Based on a dual biography of the same name by Lindy Woodhead, as well as a documentary called The Powder & the Glory, the musical War Paint focuses on the rivalry between cosmetics magnates Helena Rubenstein (played by LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole), who became two of the world's richest women by running the now disappeared or diminished empires that bore their names.

The creative team behind the 2006 musical Grey Gardens reconvened for War Paint, with Doug Wright penning the show's book, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie and Michael Greif serving as the director, as he notably also did for the original production of Rent.

Based on seeing War Paint without any familiarity with the songs--given that it's a world premiere--nor much pre-existing awareness or even interest in Rubenstein, Arden or the world of women's beauty products, I can't say I yet perceive it as a truly great musical.

Or one that will, with a bit of touch-up, ever become one (even with a pretty solid foundation). 

While the narrative moved along quite deftly under the masterful Greif--whose Next to Normal was also brilliant--I wasn't entirely riveted by the stories of the two empresses, their companies and their right-hand men who switch sides throughout. (As the only two primary performers besides LuPone and Ebersole, John Dossett and Douglas Sills are terrific as Tommy Lewis and Harry Fleming, respectively.)

And while Frankel & Korie have crafted several fine songs to further the narrative--as they did with not only Grey Gardens but a musicalized version of Far From Heaven that I really liked in a local production earlier this year--in keeping with my feelings about those shows I imagine I'll be hard-pressed to long recall many of the tunes from War Paint. Writing this just two nights after seeing the show, the title song and Arden/Ebersole's "Pink" are the only songs I can specifically name without looking at the Playbill (although I noted several others as standing out in the moment).

So in assessing the material itself, it's possible that a decade or two along the theatrical life-cycle, when War Paint is presented with spartan sets in park district environs with community theater performers--not that I don't have great regard for them--the show might reveal itself as not all that superlative.

But not only are the professionalism and skill that went into this production abundantly evident--including notably from set designer David Korins--getting to see Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole sing and act makes War Paint something beautiful to behold.

LuPone has one of the greatest voices I've ever heard, which she delectably demonstrates on songs like "Back on Top," "Now You Know" "Forever Beautiful" and several duets with Ebersole and/or others: "A Woman's Face," "Hope in a Jar," "My American Moment," "If I'd Been a Man," "Face to Face," "War Paint," "Beauty in the World."

It certainly makes sense that LuPone dons a European accent, as Helena Rubenstein--who I had never heard of and whose namesake company is now part of L'Oréal with seemingly little brand presence domestically if at all--was born in Poland.

To artfully maintain the accent even when singing is impressive on LuPone's part, and helps maintain the dichotomy between the scientific Rubenstein and the more overtly image-creating, Ontario-born Arden, but I can't deny that it made some of the dialogue and lyrics difficult to catch and/or digest.

If seems part of the point of the portrayals of the business-women and even their brands to show that Elizabeth Arden--who Ebersole personifies with delightful sass and who at one point in time pretty much defined the color pink--is more outwardly endearing, but even with great regard for dramatic authenticity and the eminence of immigrants, I might suggest softening Rubenstein's accent, particularly in song, to let LuPone's brilliant vocal instrument majestically envelop the audience more naturally.

Winnetka native Ebersole, who is also a masterful singer, shines individually--and a bit more warmly--on songs such as "Better Yourself" and especially, "Pink," while "Behind the Red Door" is a swell group number.

At the Goodman, War Paint clearly provides an attractive look at great women, meaning LuPone & Ebersole and Rubenstein & Arden.

Even without knowing much of the biographical backstory or the once dominant brands--only the continued existence of Elizabeth Arden Red Door salons has slightly powdered my consciousness--the arc of Rubenstein and Arden's rise, bitter rivalry, personal triumphs/struggles, regulatory challenges, stubborn missteps and eventual declines doesn't offer a tremendous amount of surprise. (The inclusion of Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, provides a nifty business school parable, and Erik Liberman is fun in the role.)

But whether the creation of Doug Wright, writers of earlier material or the show subjects themselves, both LuPone and Ebersole are armed with plenty of sharp dialogue--I believe "There are no ugly women, only lazy ones" was a famed tenet of Rubenstein--along with enjoyable songs amid a musical whose fluid pacing is more demonstrable than most.

It's hard to imagine many who could care less about makeup than I do, but Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole could probably sing the ingredient list from a package of nail polish--I once had to proofread such--and merit a standing ovation.

And War Paint is considerably more alluring than that.

Until Hamilton rolls into town, this is probably the musical theater event of the year in Chicago, and though tickets are scarce and pricey--being a subscriber once again proved quite fortuitous--the run has been extended deep into August, so perhaps seats will become easier to score.

I don't imagine those well-versed in the genre will dub War Paint the best musical they've ever seen, but save perhaps for Broadway, this is presumably the best you'll ever see it.

And not just one but two of the best leading ladies the idiom has ever produced makes it a joy to witness face-to-face, even at first blush.

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