The “Grey Gardens” creative team Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright have returned to Broadway with “War Paint.” This new musical is about the legendary rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. In a Broadway season exploding with pop/rock sounds (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” and “Come From Away”), “War Paint” stands out for focusing on a more traditional sound to tell a timeless story.
As in “Grey Gardens,” Frankel’s score for “War Paint” is influenced by opera, jazz and Golden-Age Broadway. Certainly a more upbeat and swingy store than “Grey Gardens,” “War Paint” is not without its emotional peaks, such as “Beauty in the World” and “Pink.” Something that caught me off-guard was that many of the numbers in “War Paint” are not as long nor as memorable as those in Frankel’s earlier shows. Nevertheless, where the score sometimes lacks in earworms, it compensates with musical intelligence, depth and density.
Christine Ebersole mesmerizes as Elizabeth Arden. She showcases her voice’s many colors on solo numbers “Better Yourself” and “Pink.” Her silvery soprano blends surprisingly well with Patti LuPone’s brassy mezzo. As the Polish entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, LuPone sports an on-point Slavic accent and vocally embodies her character’s ambition and desperation. The climactic Act 1 finale, “Face to Face,” is the zenith of both women’s impeccable chemistry and is a highlight on the cast recording. It’s a wonder Ebersole and LuPone haven’t collaborated sooner!
Finally, the ensemble is delightful, especially standing out in numbers such as “Behind the Red Door,” “Necessity Is the Mother of Invention” and “Fire and Ice.” The chorus’ predominantly female croon harkens back to classic ingenue sounds of “Guys and Dolls,” “42nd Street” and “Chicago.” Leave it to the ensemble to give the show, in its own words, the “best face forward!”
Overall, “War Paint” is a tour de force for women in contemporary musical theatre. With a glowing cast, captivating story and striking characters, the cast album is a must-hear.