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Theatre in Review: War Paint (Nederlander Theatre)

Christine Ebersole, Patti LuPone. Photo: Joan Marcus

"Coco, Coco, hoping to find...." This bit of an old show tune kept going through my mind the other night at the Nederlander as I watched Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole go through their glamorous paces in the new musical War Paint. For you young 'uns -- and others not as obsessed as I with the obscurities of musical theatre history -- Coco is a 1969 musical, by Andrew Jay Lerner and André Previn, that starred none other than Katharine Hepburn as the fashion designer Coco Chanel. Something of a whitewash of its subject's life -- for example, skipping over her affair with a Nazi officer --it focuses on her return to work in 1953, after having closed the House of Chanel during the war. The show's real point, however, was that, having over the years cast aside a cadre of lovers, always preferring commerce to romance, she was doomed to remain, as the title of the eleven o'clock number put it, "Always Mademoiselle." Listening to that song today ("Everything that mattered/She scattered/Away..."), the patronization is so thick you can cut it with a pair of draper's shears.

All of this came to mind because LuPone and Ebersole are cast as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, twentieth-century beauty mavens, ahead-of-their-time female tycoons, and lifelong rivals. The show ticks every feminist box, portraying the ladies as business pioneers and societal agenda-setters who use their wiles to convince nice middle- and upper-class women that makeup is not merely the province of painted ladies -- and if they have to exploit their customers' fears of aging, or if some of the products are a little bit bogus, what of it? As Glenda Farrell -- an actress both ladies would have recognized --says in the film Gold Diggers of 1937, "It's so hard to be good under the capitalist system."

Yet, for all of its exertions, War Paint pretty much ends up where Coco -- or any Warner Brothers women's picture of the 1940s -- did: It's lonely at the top. Succeed and you'll sleep alone; all the achievement in the world doesn't provide personal fulfillment. In the final scene, Rubinstein and Arden are left with each other, elderly enemies, briefly letting down their guard long enough to recall those long-gone days "when there was beauty in the world." Unlike Coco, War Paint doesn't pity its lead characters, but it doesn't really have much to say about them, either.

Doug Wright's book sticks fairly closely to the contours of his subjects' lives between 1935 and 1964, but, in trying to avoid creating a camp catfight -- Rubinstein and Arden famously loathed each other without ever having met -- he has come up with a parallel plot structure that proves more confining than a lady's corset. Each scene featuring Arden is followed by one with Rubinstein, a gambit that might have worked better if they didn't always face the same crises at the same time. Tommy Lewis, Arden's husband and business partner, divorces her and goes to work for Rubinstein. Harry Fleming, Rubinstein's director of sales, heads in the opposite direction. Armed with inside knowledge, each leaks the ingredients of the other's products, landing both Rubinstein and Arden in front of a Congressional committee investigating health and safety in the beauty industry.

And so it goes, as the two ladies proceed, in stately fashion, through the years. The investigation puts a dent in their profits, but both adopt new approaches during World War II, putting them back on top. Faced with the postwar wave of prosperity, both of them decline to market their products to teenagers or to reach new customers through television. And both are horrified to see the upstart Charles Revson seize on mass media to steal their thunder. At times, War Paint seems less a musical drama about flesh-and-blood people than a story about clashing marketing plans.

The worst thing that happens to Arden and Rubinstein, aside from the former's divorce and childlessness and the latter's estrangement from her husband and sons, is their lack of social recognition. Arden, an escapee from the Canadian prairie, reinvents herself as the beauty advisor to New York's upper crust, but she can never land a coveted membership in the Mayfair Club, even when her best friend is named president. Rubinstein is rejected by the board of a Park Avenue apartment building, in a deftly written scene featuring her real estate agent struggling not to use the word "Jewish." These are injustices, I grant you, but neither lady is ever going to be confused with Rosa Parks; in any case, the show is so in awe of Rubinstein and Arden that it never fully succeeds in making us feel their mutual pain of exclusion.

Nevertheless, War Paint will be irresistible to many -- for good reason -- thanks to the casting of LuPone and Ebersole. The latter swans about delightfully, greeting each new crisis with high-WASP hauteur; pressed by Congress to explain the "nutrients" contained in her "orange skin food" product, she suavely produces a letter from a customer, asserting that the lady's cook accidentally frosted a cake with the beauty cream and her entire family happily devoured it. LuPone's grimly fatalistic Rubinstein is often hilarious, no more so than when, lying in her clear Lucite bed, she uses a foot-long pair of pincers to pick up the jewels scattered about on the covers. Going through her possessions, she instructs her lawyers, "My daughter-in-law -- she wants the black pearls, the ones I bought in Bora Bora...so bury me in them!" Both stars have never been in better voice, whether caressing the songs or belting them, as required. And yet, having signed on two of our most combustible musical theatre personalities, the show keeps them at arm's length from each other; it's tantamount to purchasing the ingredients of dynamite and keeping them locked up in separate leaded containers.

Scott Frankel's music and Michael Korie's lyrics dutifully keep tabs on who is up and who is down, and occasionally-- usually when channeling popular song styles of the period -- are moderately lively and mordant. (Interestingly, the most memorable number, "Fire and Ice," is given to Revson.) But one misses the Cole Porter zing that they brought to the first act of the musical Grey Gardens -- another strange-but-true tale of New York society -- not to mention the discombobulated wit and haunted quality of that show's second act. (There isn't one song in War Paint that approaches Grey Gardens' stunning ballad "Another Winter in a Summer Town.") The best numbers are the dual eleven o'clockers, "Pink," in which Arden, losing her grip on her business, feels bereft of everything but her signature color, and "Forever Beautiful," in which Rubinstein, in a similar state of distress, recalls the many artists who immortalized her in their portraits, comparing their work to hers, in which she "used all my art to halt the march of time."

In what are surely the most thankless roles of the season, John Dossett and Douglas Sills do their very best as Lewis, who is tired of being called "Mr. Arden," and Fleming, whose nighttime activities tends toward getting drunk and picking up sailors. They have little to do beyond being ordered around, and their Act II number, "Dinosaurs," doesn't have much of an impact. In the only other roles of any size, Erik Liberman is solid as Revson, portrayed as a vulgarian go-getter, and so is Steffanie Leigh as his consort, Dorian Leigh, who becomes a superstar model on Revson's dime.

Michael Greif's direction is as smooth as a day of pampering at an Elizabeth Arden spa, and it is aided by Christopher Gattelli's choreography, especially in "Fire and Ice," which makes clever use of a three-way mirror, plus similarly dressed ladies of the chorus, to create the effect of multiple Dorian Leighs hawking Revson's new line of products. The musical's cinematic flow is aided by David Korins' sleek scenic design, which makes excellent use of art deco panels and backlit shelves of transparent bottles in various configurations. Kenneth Posner's lighting is especially crucial here, using different colors of backlight to transform the scenery; he also carves the players out of the stage with his trademark skill, helping to create a much-needed sense of intimacy with the characters. Catherine Zuber's costume design is one long parade of stunning looks, each of them exquisitely calibrated to each scene's time frame; no detail is too small in evoking an era when a woman never left the house without an elaborate ensemble, including matching hat and gloves. Providing enormous assistance are the hair designs of David Brian Brown and the makeup of Angelina Avallone. Brian Ronan's sound design is perfectly transparent, letting the lyrics, and the stars' voices, speak for themselves.

A lot of very fine work -- by some very gifted people -- has gone into War Paint, but it adds up to little more than a skirmish. LuPone supplies the fire and Ebersole, the ice, but somehow these elements never combine to dramatic effect. For all their effort, they end up with Coco squared. -- David Barbour

(17 April 2017)

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