After the sixth song of WAR PAINT has concluded, we at last hear the heavenly sound of more than a thousand people wildly clapping their hands.
The overly loud and enthusiastic burst of applause has been a long time in coming. Two ol’ pros have finally had the chance to dominate a production number, storm down to the footlights and plant themselves center stage. They’re amply rewarded with “the sound that says love,” as a Tony-winning musical of yore once defined applause.
You’re not surprised, for you’ve already heard that Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, a couple of two-time Tony-winners billed above the title, are respectively playing beauty magnates Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in this new musical.
The shock is that they’re not the ones who get the show’s first genuine cheers. Douglas Sills and John Dossett, who portray the employees in (and out of) the moguls’ lives, garner them instead after they’ve made a decision: “When you step on me, I’m stepping out.”
By this point in Act One, LuPone and Ebersole has each had her own number and has participated in three others. Was there no commensurate applause because their songs weren’t worthy? Hardly. Scott Frankel’s music offers wonderful melodies and Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations sensationally embrace the welcomed Big Band Sound.
Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie made a bold move when writing “If I’d Been a Man” for both businesswomen. It could have been an angry song, but they went for a plaintiveness that softens the women (for a few minutes, anyway). And yet, we must wonder if both songwriters and stars are disappointed with the perfunctory applause it receives.
Korie’s lyrics are witty and deft — at least for Ebersole, Sills and Dossett. They may well be for LuPone, too, but one can’t say for sure because she is unintelligible when she sings. The complaint against LuPone’s diction is one that dates back to the Carter administration, but here it’s terribly exacerbated because she replicates Rubinstein’s Polish accent that was thicker than a thicket. Luckily LuPone is easier to understand when she speaks.
Michael Greif is the ultimate culprit. This director has certainly done well with past musicals, even steering two — RENT and NEXT TO NORMAL — to Pulitzer Prizes. No other individual throughout the 100-year history of the award has been able to make that claim.
Here Greif makes the cardinal (nay, papal) sin of denying LuPone and Ebersole’s early songs the buttons that tell an audience “Clap NOW.” Not allowing theatergoers the chance to applaud results in a sterile atmosphere; worse, it subconsciously tells the crowd that it’s not attending an exciting show; if it were, wouldn’t people be clapping like crazy?
Such a situation shouldn’t remotely happen when LuPone and Ebersole are on the premises. And while WAR PAINT should be as speedy (and dangerous) as a drive-by shooting, Greif’s utterly lackadaisical pace is tantamount to watching war paint dry.
At first glance, the musical would seem to be a celebration of determined women who managed to survive and then thrive in world in an era when men were in charge of businesses. Bookwriter Doug Wright is wise to avoid meticulously doting on Arden and Rubinstein’s love lives or the latter’s children. How many times have we heard that It’s Lonely at the Top?
No, the name of the game is business, and they’re both game to play it, second-guessing each other every second as each believes she can obliterate the other: How to Succeed in Business by Really, Really Trying.
Although we’re supposed to admire these women who came from nothing and built empires, we don’t when we see them making stupid errors. Arden doesn’t want to give any credit or glory to her husband Tommy Lewis (an acceptable John Dossett). Rubinstein contemptuously tells Harry Fleming (an equally acceptable Douglas Sills) “You are like woman, so sensitive.” So the men leave – and go to work for the arch-rival.
Rubinstein has more of a case; Fleming is gay, which could result in scandal. (We’re in the ‘30s.) But why don’t these women realize that not holding on to a valued employee may mean that her trusted secrets will be divulged?
Because they don’t play fair with their men, the men don’t play fair with them. Fleming tells Arden “I know every pigment” with the same ominous implication that Mother’s Younger Brother made when he told Coalhouse in RAGTIME “I know how to make bombs.” The irony is that another man, only fleetingly on the scene, will be responsible for the beginning of the women’s downfalls. In a show such as this, you’d expect to enjoy their comeuppances, but we actually don’t.
Is that an asset or a liability? Perhaps Wright’s point was to show that pioneering but inexperienced women made wrong-headed decisions that informed future generations of businesswomen to avoid. And yet, Rubinstein’s and Arden’s egomaniacal intractability, their 100% assurance that they ALWAYS make the right move and that no one’s advice – especially those given by male underlings – is worth taking becomes mighty wearying. At least Wright rarely has each woman refer to herself in the third person.
For the most part, Wright has taken the high-road. He’s penned a few insensitive remarks: “She’s Canadian,” LuPone snarls with utter disgust; “Her clientele is strictly Second Avenue,” says Arden in what is the show’s mildest anti-Semitic slur. But if you assume from the moment the curtain goes up that Rubinstein and Arden will have Alexis-vs.-Krystle-level catfights, you’d be as wrong as last year’s election polls.
That may well disappoint those who were expecting lip-smacking-good explosions. The show isn’t toothless, and yet it’s not as ruthless as many would have anticipated. Although Rubinstein speaks of castration (not, however, referring to either of the men), neither she nor Arden is drawn as a true ball-cutter, which once again makes them less compelling.
The two don’t even meet until the final scene. While their going at each other’s eyes, ears, noses and throats all show long would have been entertaining, postponing their meeting does tantalize us and makes for an always-leave-’em-wanting-more impact.
They almost run into each other when Wright places them in adjacent restaurant banquettes — twice. In one scene, Rubinstein doesn’t notice that Arden is there; it’s vice versa in the other. Given how poorly Greif has blocked them, they would indeed see each other. Perhaps his intention was to imply that they DO know the other is there and pretend not to; alas, that’s not clear from the staging. Whatever the case, Wright makes matters aw-fully convenient for himself by having each woman eavesdrop and surreptitiously get important information from the other.
Every now and then Kenneth Posner’s lighting lands on a Rubinstein jewel which makes for a flash-in-the-eye. Too bad that the show doesn’t sparkle nearly as much and it could have, for LuPone has the right flash of authority. When Lewis tells her “War is a man’s game,” she strongly rebuts with “Tell that to Joan of Arc.” That Lewis doesn’t counter-rebut with the obvious “And look what happened to her” makes him seem uninspired and weak.
Ebersole works a smile that has a mile of subtext. When future mogul Charles Revson, accompanied by his model, approaches Arden in hopes that she’ll buy his wares, Ebersole sharply dismisses him so she can talk solely to her. Sisterhood is powerful — until Act Two when Arden automatically regards a woman lawyer as inferior to a male one.
Although the show spans nearly 30 years, the women don’t grow perceptibly older. Is that a tribute to their products or simply a mistake? You’d expect Catherine Zuber’s costumes to be magnificent, and indeed they are. LuPone often wears a dramatic hat at a severe 45-degree angle that obscures some of her face almost as much as The Phantom’s mask.
Nevertheless, for a scene involving that King of ‘50s Game Shows — THE $64,000 QUESTION – Zuber shouldn’t have put chorus girls in red and white but BLACK and white; that was the only palette available to the show’s viewers.
When the 2016-17 season’s musicals were announced, WAR PAINT was the one in which Broadway had the most interest while COME FROM AWAY had most everyone saying “What’s that?” Now we’ll see if the Best Musical Tony will prove that nice guys and dolls, and not nasty ones, finish first.