Wednesday, June 7, 2017

WAR PAINT: Kvetch, Kvetch, Kvetch

Christine Ebersole
Patti LuPone

Two renowned Tony-winning musical theatrical divas portray two renowned business divas in a musical written by a highly successful team that garnered a ton of nominations and awards for their previous work.  

What could go wrong?

Well, nothing, if what you want to see are the great Patti LuPone and the marvelous Christine Ebersole taking turns center stage performing solo numbers about how they've had to fight their way to the top, or how hard it is for a woman in business, or how their significant others don't understand them, or their trumped-up pretend rivalry, or how time is passing them by, or what they've had to sacrifice.  

But if you're looking for an absorbing musical, with an actual plot and interesting characters interacting in interesting ways, you've come to the wrong place.   

For my money, that's the problem with War Paint. It's got very little of interest to say about either of its main and ego-centric characters, cosmetics giants Helena Rubenstein (Patti LuPone, who, yes, as you have undoubtedly heard, is difficult to understand past her uniquely Polish/English/LuPone accent), and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole, who generally fares better with the material.) 

No one asked me, of course, but I do think a much more interesting show could have been made by tracing how each of them basically invented themselves.  A quick look at their biographies suggests what War Paint might have been, instead of (dare I say it) what it mostly is -- dull as dirt.    

Here's what inquiring minds want to know:  How did Chaja Rubenstein, the eldest of eight daughters born to a Polish Jewish shopkeeper in Krakow, manage to become the American cosmetics queen Helena Rubenstein? And double that by exploring the transformation of Canada's Florence Nightingale Graham into Elizabeth Arden. Now that's a dual story worth exploring in a musical.  

But when we meet these two, they already are at the top of their game. Where can you go from there beyond kvetching about their personal lives and the way they have been shunned by New York society for being nouveau riche and, in Rubenstein's case, for being Jewish? 

Hard to say what the book's writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie were going for. This is the team that put together the memorable Grey Gardens, in which Ms. Ebersole soared to the heavens as 'Little Edie' Beale. Here, the story line is flat pretty much from beginning to end, and the songs are mostly functional.  

Things do pick up in the last 30 minutes or so, but that makes for rather a long wait for one bravo song, "Pink," sung by Ebersole, and a nicely played imagined meeting between Rubinstein and Arden just before they are about to be honored by the industry. 

I guess you can admire Catherine Zuber's costumes (a strong Tony contender), but I think I'd rather go to a concert performance in which LuPone and Ebersole take turns performing numbers from throughout their careers. Now that would be worthy of their talents and make for a fantastic evening.

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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