WHAT “War Paint”
WHERE Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.
INFO $69-$179; 877-250-2929, warpaintmusical.com
BOTTOM LINE A good musical and a marvelous showcase for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole.
Patti LuPone’s voice glistens in many dark shades of steel — shards with sharp points and astonishing smooth edges. Christine Ebersole sounds classy and creamy, but cream that bites and stings as well as pleases.
The two don’t sing together often in “War Paint,” the musical about cosmetics rivals Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden made especially for two of musical theater’s most self-challenging marvels. Hearing these extraordinary women at the top of their game in duets that contrast and blend and play off one another’s unique theatrical instincts is a thrill, and would be even without a chic and thoughtful show around them.
“War Paint” may not be one of the great musicals, but it is an enormously satisfying one. Yes, it is a showcase for established artists hungry for new material. But the show, sleekly and compassionately directed by Michael Greif and created by the team that made the haunting “Grey Gardens,” looks at American women from 1934 to 1964 through a new lens — from the lives of two business titans who took lipstick from harlots to high society.
According to Doug Wright’s history-spanning book, based on a biography and documentary, both women came from poverty — Rubinstein (LuPone) from the Polish shtetl, Arden (Ebersole) from a farm in Canada. They invented themselves into fashion royalty but, along the way, also invented a need that women didn’t even dream they had. The two did it by force of will, and by making women feel insecure and pampered at the same time.
On one side of David Korins’ set with a background of frosted apothecary bottles is Arden, country-club blond, who whisks women through the Red Door of her salon with the high-society allure of pink and packaging. On the other side is Rubinstein, severe black hair pulled back and an accent that sells beauty on old-world exoticism and semi-science.
Each has an unhappy man to do the marketing. One is gay and, thus, socially dangerous (Douglas Sills), the other is Arden’s invisible husband (John Dossett). The men switch jobs along the way, benefiting from a few bitter and rhythmically jagged Sondheim-inspired duets.
The songs by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie have rich dramatic context but not quite the wished-for originality. And we yearn for one that gives Ebersole the chance to show her wicked sense of humor. Doyennes, grand dames and Arden “girls” float on and offstage with dreams of everlasting youth, while an upstart named Charles Revson (Erik Liberman) runs off with the new working-woman culture. Everyone wears especially gorgeous costumes by Catherine Zuber that just could bring back stoles and hats, but the style beyond fashion comes from these stars.