When a musical has as its two stars, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, there is bound to be entertainment. That’s true in “War Paint,” even though the book concept seems a stretch. While one enjoys the colorful performances by these two divas, there is the underlying feeling that an idea that looked good needed forcing to play out as a full-fledged show.
LuPone is sharp and outspoken as Helena Rubinstein, the Polish-Jewish make-up tycoon who built a business from scratch and whose disapproving expressions could sink a ship, and Ebersole is glamorous and equally ambitious as Canadian Elizabeth Arden, Rubinstein’s rival. There is no evidence that they ever met, but naturally, the musical must culminate in their encounter, which works dramatically in the hands of these show biz experts.
They each have dynamic solos, such as Ebersole’s revealing “Pink,” and they work well when singing as separated duos, especially in the meaningful number, “If I’d Been a Man” and later in the joint “Beauty in the World.” Each star is a show unto herself, and together they make an extra powerful attraction.
The book by Doug Wright works best when reaching for significance, as when the Rubinstein and Arden attempt to help the World War II effort, or when anti-Semitism leads to Rubinstein’s rejection when she wants an upscale apartment (“So I bought the building,” she says) and Arden faces a social rejection because she has earned her own money as a woman and not inherited it. There is also the inherent comment on the pressure on women to look beautiful by buying products thrust on them by savvy marketing, and we see a congressional investigation of what ingredients go into the products.
But it is tough to stretch out a whole musical about cosmetic achievements, although the set-up does provide for colorful numbers with attractive singers and dancers (choreography by Christopher Gattelli) and dazzling women’s outfits (designed by Catherine Zuber.) The music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie work best when sung by the stars, and director Michael Greif has worked hard to keep up a pace in a show that seems over-extended.
John Dossett as Tommy Lewis and Douglas Sills as Harry Fleming, the betraying men in the story, are excellent, as are others in the supporting cast. I especially enjoyed Erik Liberman as the super-aggressive Charlie Revson, who pushes his own brand and sings in “Fire and Ice,” one of the show’s more dynamic numbers.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that watching LuPone and Ebersole is the main reason for seeing ‘War Paint,” and the stars who reign do not disappoint, even in a show with a strained book and less than glorious music. At the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed April 13, 2017.