In 2006, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, and playwright Doug Wright teamed up to create the musical “Grey Gardens,” one of the most praised original musicals in recent theatrical memory. The same creative team has partnered again on new musical “War Paint,” which opened on Broadway on April 6 at the Nederlander Theatre under the direction of Michael Greif.
Featuring the awe-inspiring duo of two-time Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole (“Grey Gardens,” “42nd Street”) and Patti LuPone (“Gypsy,” “Evita”), “War Paint” chronicles the careers of cosmetic industry titans and fierce rivals Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, portrayed by Ebersole and LuPone, respectively The tuner follows them from the peak of their careers in 1935 through their decline in 1964. John Dossett and Douglas Sills co-star as Arden and Rubinstein’s right-hand men.
Considering the pedigree of its talent, did “War Paint” impress critics?
Response to “War Paint” varied tremendously. In one of the most favorable write-ups, David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter) praises the “thoroughly compelling and masterfully entertaining… intelligent, character-driven musical” that features “two star turns for the ages,” with particular kudos for “the ferocious LuPone,” costume designer Catherine Zuber’s “genius” and “eye-popping” outfits, and Frankel and Korie’s “lush jazzy tunes” and “songs of torch introspection.” Linda Winer (Newsday) also applauds the “enormously satisfying” musical for the thrill of “hearing these extraordinary women at the top of their game in duets that contrast and blend and play off one another’s unique theatrical instincts,” even though the score at times lacks “wished-for originality.”
Other critics seem much less impressed with the musical as a whole, though they still found much to enjoy in the performances and the design. Jesse Green (Vulture) deems the show “beguiling but frustrating” because it “keeps falling between an older model of storytelling and a new one” with a “bit monotonous” structure, but he acknowledges that “LuPone and Ebersole are in top form,” also praising “the astonishing costumes and the score filled with real theater songs… as good as Broadway gets.” Marilyn Stasio (Variety) similarly notes that “there’s little at stake” in the musical itself, yet it boasts a “smart and literate” book, lyrics that “suite the characters and serve the plot,” “fabulous costumes and magnificent hats” and a “definitive number” in LuPone’s Act II solo “Forever Beautiful.”
With such rapturous reviews, both LuPone and Ebersole seem destined to earn their seventh and fourth Tony nominations, respectively. Although consensus seems to favor LuPone because Rubinstein is a much meatier and bombastic role, critics also praised Ebersole’s nuanced performance as Arden. Notably, Ben Brantley (New York Times) called her eleven o’clock number “Pink,” “the show’s most exquisite number,” in part because of her ability to convey Arden’s “triumph, regret, defiance and anger.”
The so-so response for the show outside of its lead performances might keep “War Paint” from breaking into the Best Musical category in such a crowded year, although it will certainly be a viable contender.
Frankel and Korie stand a decent chance at reaping another nomination for Best Score, especially considering their esteemed reputation in the theater community and the decade-long wait for their Broadway follow-up to “Grey Gardens.” Orchestrator Bruce Coughlin also received warm notices and could be recognized in the Best Orchestrations category alongside his composers. Librettist Wright, who has one previous Tony nomination for “Gardens,” might struggle to earn a bid this year because much of the criticism of the musical stems from problems with the book, including its dedication to a meandering moment-by-moment historical recreation of Arden and Rubinstein’s careers.
One below-the-line nomination the “War Paint” producers will be able to count on will be for costume designer Zuber. Not only did her work on this musical earn her rave reviews, but she has a stellar track record at the Tony Awards with twelve prior nominations and six wins, most recently for the 2015 revival of “The King and I.”
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