In today’s Wall Street Journal I write about the Broadway transfer of here. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
“War Paint” isn’t so much a musical as a pitch. It’s easy enough to imagine it: “I know—let’s do a musical about the Helena Rubinstein-Elizabeth Arden feud! Two tough-as-industrial-sandpaper businesswomen who make cosmetics and hate each other’s guts! We’ll get Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole to be the stars, and we’ll get the ‘Grey Gardens’ guys to write the show. What’s not to like?” And up to a point, the goods get delivered: The stars are starry, the sets are glossy and the book is full of snappy one-liners. In the end, though, “War Paint” fails to keep its costly promises. Yes, it’s entertaining enough, but nothing like the deckle-edged hit it wants so desperately to be…
Unusually for a commercial musical, “War Paint” is not directly based on a pre-existing play or movie. I suspect that’s part of the problem, because it isn’t very dramatic. For openers, the plot of the show fails to pass the who-cares test: Neither Rubinstein nor Arden is portrayed in a sympathetic way, and since all they care about is getting rich, there’s no special reason to root for either one of them. It’s possible that “War Paint” might have worked better had one of the two women been turned into a secondary character, but they are given exactly equal time on stage (it almost feels as if Doug Wright had written the book in collaboration with his stars’ lawyers). The result is a musical that is structurally rigid, dramaturgically over-crowded and emotionally tepid.
Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole both do their very best to turn their characters into something more than stick figures, and Michael Korie’s well-honed lyrics give them something to work with (“I, too, am called a nouveau riche pretender/The Jew whose application/Gets RETURNED TO SENDER”). Alas, Scott Frankel’s music is harmonically rich but melodically inert, and Michael Greif, the director, has made the mistake of having Ms. LuPone sing in a heavy Polish accent. While the punch lines in her dialogue scenes come through clearly, the accent turns many of Mr. Korie’s pointed lyrics into half-intelligible mush….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.