(Disclaimer: This analysis is of the opening night of preview performances. The show is still being rehearsed and tweaked and the changes suggested here are my own simple observations. The final critical word will be said on the true opening night. I will be seeing the show the night it closes as a finale to this analysis, so this is simply an analysis of the first night of its public existence.)
What are the names that come to mind when we present feminist role models for young women to emulate? We think of the Amelia Earharts, Eleanor Roosevelts, and Susan B. Anthonys.
Tonight, I'd like to tack two important names onto that list: Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden.
The world premiere of the Broadway-bound musical War Paint at The Goodman Theatre has had the theatre community abuzz for months. The tony-winning creative team behind the extraordinarily successful underdog Broadway show of 2006, Grey Gardens, Composer Scott Frankel, Lyricist Michael Korie, and Book-Writer Doug Wright, have created a show that epitomizes a woman's drive to succeed in the male-dominated world of the early-to-mid-1900's. The show is based on the book War Paint by Lindy Woodhead and the PBS Documentary The Powder and The Glory, which provide a perfect introduction to these women if you're at all curious.
Rubenstein and Arden were the architects of our modern make-up industry, creating a cacophony of creams and cleansers to cultivate beauty. Both were the heads of their companies, relied on no man to be the figurehead, and worked extraordinarily hard: Rubenstein at researching the best ingredients to use and Arden in how to market them. Oh, and I forgot to mention...they were in competition. One of the driving messages of the show is the fact that, had they calmed their egos and met properly, they might have ruled the world together.
The show would be moot if these roles were miscast but, thank goodness, two veterans were brought in to breathe life into these fascinating women: two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole (who won the Tony for Grey Gardens, for her life-changing role as the tortured Little Edie Beale.) LuPone and Ebersole are like salt and pepper, ketchup and mustard, and (a phrase which is the title of one of the songs in the show) fire and ice! They perfectly compliment each other, playing off of the strengths of the other. I know it may seem odd for a 24-year-old to make this reference, but they reminded me of I Love Lucy's Lucy and Ethel, a team that was able to relegate laughs when needed and always play to their partner's strong points. And, as is not always the case with two strong, unique voices, they blend together to perfection, playing tug of war in a cascade of perfectly-composed harmony.
LuPone, who is no stranger to creating roles, created a lovable tyrant that could be the love-child of Eva Peron and Norma Desmond. Rubenstein, who was born in Poland to a Jewish family and had a thick accent, presents a distinct challenge to LuPone. At times the words were clear as a bell but, in the more raucous numbers, the diction was very hard to discern. The voice, however, remains the glorious instrument it always was, having honeyed with age to perfection like a fine whiskey. She is able to stretch a line for days, spinning a phrase into an exquisite melange of feeling and ecstasy. Her character got the majority of the evening's share of one-liners, dashing off the most shocking observations with a roll of the tongue and a flip of the hand. Her solo numbers ran the gamut. "Back on Top" lacked a foundation to make the number speak, while "Now You Know" provided a poignant moment of reflection of the walls her Jewish heritage has put in front of her all her life. Her final "mad scene", "Forever Beautiful," was campy without being precious, a perfect descriptor to the character as a whole. LuPone's portrayal was honest, driven, humorous, and, most importantly, flawed.
If LuPone had the most linguistic challenges of the night, Ebersole had the challenge of avoiding the cliche of the "flash over substance" way of thinking that pervaded Arden's work. Arden's cosmetic empire was built on beautiful boxes, all-day spa experiences, and unique presentation. Ebersole's portrayal retains that true touch of innocence that Arden had, while fleshing out the darker aspects of a woman who is classist and a perfectionist. Ebersole took Arden's carefully-concocted public image and turned it on its head, presenting a woman who is conflicted, raw, and driven to succeed without a man at the wheel. Sadly, in terms of solos, the team needs to rework "Better Yourself." It is the epitome of a song without a base, floating and leaving as quickly as it came and making no real impact. Her final aria "Pink", and I use the operatic term because that is how it must be categorized, is one of the most touching experiences I have ever had in the Theater. It gets to the meat quickly, allowing Ebersole ample room to philosophize and rationalize Arden's decisions and dismantle her public persona, which has become her epitaph. Ebersole's is a well-rounded performance, using her gleaming voice to caress and cajole Arden into our collective hearts.
As the partners of these two titans, John Dossett as Arden's Husband Tommy Lewis and Douglas Sills as Rubenstein's boy-toy Harry Fleming become a surrogate Greek Chorus to the proceedings, fighting to the death, yet knowing that their pleas fall on the deaf ears of women on a mission. Sills' voice is like melted steel, cool and piercing, and Dossett's is spun like cotton candy, sugary, yet sits well on the palate. The ensemble, a group of 11 that plays a staggering 26 distinct roles, as well as groups of employees, customers, soldiers, and more, outdoes themselves in a spectacle that can be described only as tour de force of distinct personalities and dazzling vocal fireworks.
The stage of The Goodman is an exemplary setting for this at times raucous and intimate, character-driven drama. Director Michael Greif and Choreographer Christopher Gattelli used every inch of the space to their advantage, the smallest details personifying their owners. The backdrop, an orderly set of translucent bottles, changed colors to suit the narrative, turning various shades of bubbly pink (Arden's favorite color, and also the most dreaded albatross around her neck) and red, white, and blue while Rubenstein and Arden help with the World War II effort ("Reminds the boys on the front what they're fighting for!") Various desks, beds, stores, laboratories, and bars slide on as needed, all perfectly designed by David Korins. The costumes by Catherine Zuber perfectly adorned the versatile ensemble, bringing the glamour of the five decades presented in the narrative to perfect light.
In terms of critiquing the work, as a whole, it was a virtuosic display of well-honed talent and finesse. The book is tight, the drama moves fast, and most of the set numbers work incredibly well. Particular praise should go to the opening, "A Woman's Face", which provides the vamp that permeates the entirety of the show, a quirky pulse that's tight and malleable. The same can be said of Rubenstein and Arden's voluptuous and rich duets, including "My American Moment", a paean to the uniqueness of The American Dream for immigrants. "If I'd Been a Man" could be taken out of the show as it is and adopted as a Feminist battle-cry and, within the drama, it adds a fire to finish off the first act. The duet "Face to Face" closes the first act, weaving the vocal lines of these two unique personalities into a blazing coda that left me breathless as the house lights rose. In terms of what numbers need to be tweaked, I present my humble opinion. Arden and Lewis' duet "A Working Marriage" is a fine rough draft, but needs a center to pull it together and, as it stands, it is trite and serves no real purpose than to highlight Arden's domination of her husband. The major potboiler of the piece is "Fire and Ice," a number where Revlon creator Charles Revson mocks the two aging magnates as he ascends to number one. The number, to be frank, is pointless, embarrassing, and holds up the drama at the ascent to the height of the climax at the end of the show. That being said, these small quips are molehills.
War Paint is a musical that, once the screws are tightened and the wheat is cut from the chaff, deserves to go to Broadway. Very rarely is a character-driven, passionate manifesto presented so evenly, even on its first night of public existence. The genius of the writing team, the charisma of its stars, and the rich true story that ignites this drama will be the stuff of Broadway legend.
I am happy to simply be a termite, lusting as Versailles is constructed board by board, knowing full well that I will soon have a part of history inside me.
(A very, very, very special thank you to the Alumni Associate of MacMurray College in Jacksonville, IL, who so graciously allowed me to infiltrate their post-show reception, where I was able to meet Christine Ebersole and tell her what a breathtaking creation she allowed me to witness. It was truly an honor to be in the midst of all of you, and I wish you all the best for making my little dreams come true.)