The Beauty of War Paint

War Paint just closed at the Goodman Theatre following a limited summer run before it (presumably) heads to Broadway, and of course I purchased tickets during my first week in Chicago. Initially, I was eager to attend exclusively for Patti LuPone, because the musical theatre nerd in me was already desperate for some song and dance without the endless availability of New York. Unsurprisingly, I adored the show, particularly because there was so much lady power.

Let’s just take a moment to applaud a show led by two female characters. That in itself is pretty impressive, and then you factor in the over-35 age range (approximately when women become too withered and disgusting for an audience to bear looking at) and it’s simply unprecedented. Even better, and I was practically salivating at this point, the two characters in question are based on historically barrier-breaking businesswomen, cosmetics behemoths Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein. Their portrayals by two powerhouse performers, Christine Ebersole and LuPone, respectively, are a feminist’s dream.

In terms of the script itself, while I felt that the second act moved along swiftly and efficiently, the first certainly began to drag and feel self-indulgent at points. While the music by Scott Frankel was generally spunky and catchy, there were perhaps a few too many unnecessary ballads. We get it, War Paint, you’ve got two Broadway legends in one theatre. But how many belting solos can you cram into one act without any plot growth?

Similarly, I felt that the two male secondary roles weren’t properly developed or particularly intriguing. John Dosset and Douglas Sills gave all they could, but the rather fictionalized roles they portrayed, of Arden’s and Rubenstein’s seconds-in-command, essentially, were inherently shallow and boring. Frankly, I didn’t much see the purpose of the characters at all, though the bitter part of me couldn’t help but smirk that it was finally men being relegated to such shell characters, and not the typical one-dimensional female role.

Yet my biggest caveat was that I 100% loathed the opening number of the second act, which courses through the entirety of WWII in a tacky, flashy, glib and inconsiderate spectacle. Yes, I understand the point is drawing a parallel between the Second World War and legendary business rivalry of Arden and Rubenstein, hence War Paint. Unfortunately, this number was one of those obnoxious theater moments in which the play title is hammered incessantly into the audience member’s skulls, no artistic subtlety at all. Aside from a line each about relatives in Poland and France, respectively, Rubenstein and Arden make no appropriate mention of the atrocities and severity of this global conflict. Instead, we get a mandatory, quick “do you think what they’re saying about the Jews is true?” and not a moment to process before a slew of sexy Rosie-the-Riveters were dancing onstage. It seems that writer Doug Wright and director Michael Greif were attempting to mimic the over-the-top style perfected in Book of Mormon, but failed spectacularly, languishing in a confusing mediocrity. It’s neither ridiculous enough to be funny, nor serious enough to be moving. But I digress.

Finally, when it comes to those two star-struck-inducing leading ladies, I have quite the secret. Which is that, personally, I thought Ebersole was significantly better than LuPone. Both of their vocals were outstanding, but I was surprised by the different calibers in acting. On paper, Rubenstein is a more intriguing character, but it felt like LuPone was playing her as such a stereotype without much originality or nuance. As such, Rubenstein was portrayed as the harsh, stern Eastern European with a lot of gumption. I would have loved to see more of her vulnerability, the depth of her drive. Conversely, I expected Arden to be boring and simple, embodying the typical “poor little rich girl” narrative. Instead, Ebersole turned her into a fascinating dissection of gender norms and the sacrifices to succeed as a woman at the time. It would be easy to see Arden as the bimbo-esque, vain character, but Ebersole ensured you felt her humanity and empathized far more with her journey and struggles.

Of course, it’s still Patti LuPone and an overall marvelous book, score and production. Keep your eyes peeled, because Broadway, it’s coming for you.

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