Wednesday, October 4, 2017

War Paint (Broadway)

Manhattan, 1930's. Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) is informed by her husband/Marketing Chief Tommy Lewis (John Dossett) regarding her archrival Helena Rubinstein's (Patti LuPone) comeback in the New York cosmetics scene. Returning from Europe, she brings along the promise of scientifically-proven effective make-up as opposed to her competitor's products that are allegedly of inferior quality and heavily reliant on attractive pink packaging. When Helena's Marketing Director, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), complains about being undervalued in the company, he decides to defect and offer Arden not just his expertise, but also Rubinstein's trade secrets. Considering his wife's move as an act of emasculation for his ego, Lewis retaliates and allies with Rubinstein. As both women wage a war against each other for supremacy, they must also confront emerging industry challengers, as well as double standards and prejudice against powerful women in 1930's America. 

Honestly, I wasn’t that keen on seeing War Paint. Seriously, it’s a musical about make-up. Who has time for that? But I took a chance because of LuPone. I had no idea who Ebersole was but she was the first to make her grand entrance belting, “I am heeeeeeere!!!” The audience went ballistic. LuPone was met with the same fervor a few minutes later with her heavily-accented one-liner: “It’s good to be back in Manhattan. You know that you are in the midst of two theater legends when the audience just goes wild about virtually anything that they do on that stage. For that alone, I highly recommend this musical. 

There is nothing more that can be said of either LuPone or Ebersole that hasn't already been mentioned elsewhere. These ladies are legends, plain and simple. They make belting glory notes seem as though it was as simple as letting out a yawn. In those instances where their voices battle it out for supremacy, what you get is harmonious blending instead of a diva-off. Nowadays it’s simply rare to find two legends graciously sharing one stage and coming up with an electrifying performance you will never forget. And yes, both were nominated at the last Tony’s for this material, if you need more convincing. 

While both actresses do appear onstage side by side in many scenes, they do not really acknowledge one another's presence. In part, this is effective because you are led to believe that once they finally meet for real, the interaction would be plain explosive. The two ladies eventually share the same spotlight, but the ensuing scene comes off as rather poignant with some dashes of subtle comedy. And then you realize that for all the animosity that these two women hold against each other, they are actually just victims of societal norms deeming them powerless in the midst of a society that refuses to recognize success unless you are a man. 

Perhaps a good take-away from this musical aside from the amazing production values is the quick review of the history of female empowerment as a movement in the United States. War Paint gives you a glimpse of how it was like for a woman to helm her own empire back in the 30's, along with the implications that would otherwise not be there if either Arden or Rubinstein was a man. In effect, it is in those moments whenever either one of them bemoans the unnecessary drawbacks of their gender that one appreciates the musical for the social critique that it offers, an issue that can still be considered relevant even up to this day.

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