Saturday, March 25, 2023
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War Paint - Starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole

Oscar E. Moore “from the rear mezzanine” for Talk

I had a dream. A wonderful dream…during the second act of the quite slow going WAR PAINT. Christine Ebersole had morphed from Elizabeth Arden into Mame and Patti LuPone from Helena Rubinstein into Vera Charles and they were singing “Bosom Buddies” a real song and not some imitation sung exposition posing as such.

My dream quickly changed into a nightmare as WW II broke out and I was back to sloshing through the remainder of this ill-conceived tennis match starring two of the best leading ladies of the musical theater.

Traversing the decades from 1935 to 1964 book writer Doug Wright basically gives us the same information found in the Playbill. The score (and I use the word loosely) by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) is disappointing. These two extraordinary stars deserve much better. Can anyone remember “No Thank You”?

After a weak opening number “Best Face Forward” each star has a STAR entrance that is greeted with wild applause. Expectation is high as we know that these two ladies can deliver the goods IF they are given some worthwhile goods to deliver. Sadly that is not to be the case.

Arden and Rubinstein are already at the top of their game in the cosmetics business. Each successful. Each jealous of each other. Appealing to women’s insecurities to amass fortunes for themselves. Jewels for Rubinstein. Horses for Arden. Bitter rivals that avoided each other like the plague.

So it is hard to believe they would sit in adjoining booths at the St. Regis on a couple of occasions. Drinking champagne, dining and eavesdropping…

Ms. Ebersole is the height of blue-blooded Upper East Side chicness. La Diva LuPone unfortunately has decided to use a thick Polish accent making it impossible to decipher what Madame is saying or singing. A word or two slips through as she faces forward to issue a lethal barb or two.

They both have a few tricks up their couture sleeves. The spanning-the-decades costumes by Catherine Zuber are knock-outs. As are the spectacular hats. But when hats and haute-couture upstage the book and score you’re in trouble.

John Dossett is Tommy Lewis better known as Mr. Arden. Douglas Sills is the right hand advertising executive of Rubinstein, Harry Fleming. His predilection for young sailors eventually does him in with her despite his brilliant idea of making the same face cream do double duty. By packaging and marketing them as one for day and one for night. NO spoiler here - they both switch bosses.

Mr. Arden escapes to Rubinstein and Harry is hired by Arden. And so the tennis match staging by Michael Greif goes on – stage right – stage left. And then Arden did this. And then Rubinstein did that. And then Harry did this. And Tommy did that. And then Charles Revson swoops in upsetting the apple red lipstick cart when the two titans opt out of advertising on TV. He does and the rest is history.

Eric Liberman as the opportunistic and crass Revson takes full advantage of this situation both as the character and performer. His “Fire and Ice” is a highlight. Can I hum it? No. Do I remember the gowns? Certainly.

WAR PAINT is a tedious singing documentary that does give each entrepreneur an 11 o’clock number “Pink” by Arden & “Forever Beautiful” by Rubinstein where they both make a valiant effort in rescuing the production.

They finally meet face to face, stooped, lonely and resigned but still beautifully feisty and decked out delivering the duet “Beauty in the World” but not before the intrusion of a young valley girl type that totally deflates the beauty of the moment. Tennis anyone?

At the Nederlander Theatre.

Photo: Joan Marcus

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