On & Off Broadway

‘War Paint’

Review by Elyse Trevers


When people complain that there aren’t any good parts for women, they need only look at this Broadway season. Directed by Michael Greif, War Paint is an original musical featuring two powerhouse performers: Patty Lupone (Evita, Les Miserables,) and Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens). Both are in fine voice, but the sad truth is that the new show is boring. War Paint tells the story of the careers and competition between make-up entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.

The musical goes on too long and, despite the stunning costumes by Catherine Zuber, it’s easy to lose interest unless the two stars are onstage. (On either side of me, a gentleman closed his eyes and slept for a part of the show.)

Much of the show alternates between the women, first Arden, then Rubinstein. Ebersole gives a solid performance and has a beautiful voice but Lupone’s character is the more caustic of the two, so she gets to deliver the best comic zingers. Her song “Forever Beautiful” is a showstopper.

The two major characters, though business enemies, never really met. So the show fabricates a meeting that the two agree ‘never happened.’ By the end of their long careers, both women had made their marks in a man’s world. War Paint wonders how their stories might have been different “If I’d Been A Man.”

There are several unnecessary scenes that prolong the musical. Two men share the ladies’ lives. Arden’s ex-husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), eventually goes to work for Rubinstein and at the same time, Rubinstein’s assistant, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), goes to Arden, both revealing each other’s secret formulas. The men’s songs show their frustration at being overlooked and under-appreciated but add little to the show. The scenes featuring the clients in the salons seem unnecessary, and the arc about how the two rivals can support America in World War II is so trivial as to be valueless; a lipstick whose case won’t dent when dropped. Really?

When their business advisors urge them to change their tactics, by buying television advertising and appealing to young women, both resist. They aim for a specific high-class clientele. So it is with War Paint itself. If you are a Christine Ebersole or Patty Lupone fan, you will love listening and watching the incredible ladies onstage. Sadly, however, this musical may not win over any new customers.