When you get the chance to see two amazing performers together on stage, you run to that show even if you know very little about it. Patti LuPone is a living legend with a belt like no other. Christine Ebersole may not be as large a name to some, but the two time Tony Winner has more emotion in a single phrase than many can muster in an entire song. Her voice is pure and something beautiful to witness live. The two star as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in the new musical War Paint about these two entrepreneurs that did more for the cosmetics industry than many even know - all the while being fueled by trying to outdo the other.
And that is the premise of the 2 hour and 45 minute musical.
Feuds between women are huge. Ryan Murphy has offered the one between Joan and Bette on TV now. In the 80s there was a play called Legends (that never made it to Broadway) about two feuding legends that starred Mary Martin and Carol Channing. (Read the book Diary of a Mad Playwright by James Kirkwood where the story behind that play was even bigger than what was on stage.)
I need to start by saying I am a fan of so many involved in this show. Composer and Lyricist Scott Frankel and Michael Korie are often compared to Sondheim in how they write - where one needs another listen to allow their ear to catch a melody. I love their Grey Gardens (which also starred Christine Ebersole) and their score to Far From Heaven. Here they have given a score that is true to the multiple periods they take us through from 30s-60s while sticking to the musical voice they know. I had the pleasure of sitting next to fellow Texan playwright Doug Wright on a plane many years ago and had the most amazing discussion. He won the Pulitzer for I Am My Own Wife and also wrote the book for Grey Gardens. Michael Greif has been at the helm of many Broadway 'wonders' from Rent to Next to Normal to the current Dear Evan Hansen and is in the director's chair for this one as well.
With this dream team, my hopes were high and they were quickly dashed. While trying so hard to keep this show even between the two lead roles, they see-saw back and forth until it is one huge muddled mess of a story. Act 1 stays on one note of "I don't like that other woman" and yet we don't get enough "why?, what's motivating them to be the pioneers that they are?, why do I want to care about these two women?" The subplots are so small there isn't truly a reprieve from the main story line. They each have a man in their life handing marketing and sales, Arden's husband Tommy Lewis played wonderfully by John Dosset and Rubinstein's Harry Fleming played by the dashing Douglas Sills (enjoyed seeing him back on Broadway). However they have two of the more cringe-worthy songs in the show. The ensemble is full of people with huge Broadway credits and each are so under utilized in this flimsy book of a musical, it's a shame.
In trying to be so even - Mr. Greif stages it in such a repetitive, boring manner that I knew exactly what the next scene was going to be - down to when the man would sit on a desk - it's the same scene over and over told for a different character. (Sorry, we already have Groundhog Day opening this same season.) I was complaining at intermission about the direction having no idea it was someone that I loved and respected so much. Everyone crosses and circles each other all night long with no intent behind their movement. I get that we wanted to show these women on parallel paths, but I would have preferred something deeper in the storytelling to pull us in. I actually believe concentrating on one over the other would have made for a more compelling story. There is only one true moment that comes close to any emotional depth that we saw in Grey Gardens and that's when the incredible Ms. Ebersole sings the song "Pink" about her legacy. Ms. Lupone is allowed to belt every song and the audiences eats it up. (She is in amazing voice!) She delivers one-liners throughout the show that feel we've been plopped into the middle of RuPaul's Drag Race.
There are over 20 songs that start to go together because the book needs to be given room to breathe before jumping into yet another song. And then when we finally do get a true book scenes, it's at the end of the night when (stop reading if you don't want any spoilers) the two women finally meet face to face and the musical stops everything to give them a true scene...which for this audience member came much too late. To do an entire musical where the two leads never interact is probably the biggest disservice of this entire show.
There are musical moments in the show that are glorious for the two leads. There are moments in the book that take a swipe at what is happening in America today as it's about two immigrants who chased the American dream and succeeded. (Listen for the line about fighting the bully - the audience eats it up.) I must also give a huge shout out to Catherine Zuber for her incredible costume design. However in a season full of so many new musicals (both original and based on films), I'm not sure the two powerhouses will be enough to keep this seesaw of a musical teetering back and forth. I guess we'll wait and see. It's still in previews. Much could change. They've already changed some since it's run in Chicago. However, the main things I point out above will not change as I went and read reviews from Chicago right before hitting the publish button on this blog and many felt the same way then...and I think they'll feel it again.
These stars deserve better. These real life women deserve better.