War Paint may not be this year’s best musical, but it’s a highly entertaining, inventive, and informative show. Tracing the decades-long rivalry between the twin giantesses of commercialized beauty care, Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), War Paint sets off sparks of interest in multiple directions. First, there’s the industrial rise and (inevitably) the decline of these two hyper-ambitious, ultra-determined women, in a business world even more strongly male-dominated than today’s. Within that story, there’s their personal rivalry, fueled partly by a catty resentment that allows Doug Wright to spangle his script with smart, caustic zingers. As the show’s authors tell it, two supportive leading men — Arden’s husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), and Rubinstein’s gay, suavely unscrupulous marketing chief, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) — become battle trophies for the warring female tycoons. (In reality, the two empresses of face cream never met, compelling War Paint‘s creators to invent a final face-to-face confrontation for them, as Schiller did for the two queens in Mary Stuart.)
Two feisty women taking up arms equally against the patriarchy and each other: It’s a resonant story now, to say the least, and War Paint‘s makers have taken care to widen its horizons. Outside this tale of battling businesswomen lie countless larger matters: the product-safety issue of what goes into the unguents you apply to your body and who regulates it; the class-based issue of whether to market democratically or through exclusivity. A further question of class involves these two lowborn women’s matching struggles for acceptance by the social elite — Rubinstein a Polish Jew and Arden (born Florence Graham) a drab Canadian farm girl. Finally, there’s the gigantic issue of whether, as they accumulate wealth and power by pitching cosmetics, the two entrepreneurial titanesses are enabling their gender to move toward equality, or condemning it to stay back, in the man-pleasing decorative department.
War Paint flirts, intriguingly, with all these ideas, like fragrance samples sprayed on your hand in a department store, but its spine is the blend of personal and business rivalry that seems to energize not only its two central figures but the stars who embody them. Ebersole’s Arden, elegant, soulful, and languidly dismissive of her competitor, lures the house with the more introspective ballads; LuPone, a petite, ferocious bundle of fiery energy, zaps the crowd with the power numbers. This sensible division of labor, often crisscrossing into counterpoint or scenes that parallel the two ladies, gives the show both a sustaining interest and the lush feel of a beauty cream.
The cream is kept from curdling or getting gloppy by sudden, enlivening flecks of invention: flashes of stylized motion from choreographer Christopher Gattelli; surprise touches of color from Kenneth Posner’s lighting design; tidbits of unexpected instrumental color in Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations; startling shapes or patterns in Catherine Zuber’s costumes. Like the products marketed under Rubinstein’s steely-moderne logo or behind the red door of Arden’s salon, it’s luxuriously packaged. And unlike the contents of those ladies’ expensively luxurious packages — hair-raisingly enumerated in a sequence involving a Senate hearing on the cosmetics industry — the musical substance of War Paint seems solidly, sagaciously traditional. Lyricist Michael Korie and composer Scott Frankel rarely transcend the conventional show-music idiom, but they work fluently and intelligently within it, while Wright’s pungent, pointed book skillfully encapsulates its many topics without ever running aground. Michael Greif’s direction pulls everything together with expectable smoothness. In addition to the two stars’ powerhouse performances, and the handsome, carefully contrasted work of their two male counterparts, there’s a droll cameo by Erik Liberman as the rabbity, overzealous Charles Revson. Yes indeed, for those who love musicals and, these days, can afford them, War Paint has much to offer.
I wish I could say the same on behalf of Amélie (Walter Kerr Theatre), which seems so potentially tantalizing. Based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 French film of the same name, which half of New York apparently adores, the musical boasts a book by Craig Lucas, a score by Broadway newcomers Daniel Messé and Nathan Tyson, a cast, under Pam MacKinnon’s direction, that’s headed by Phillipa Soo, fresh from Hamilton, and its sets and costumes are by David Zinn, which ought to guarantee at least a touch of genius.
Yet somehow, unhappily, Amélie lacks that touch. Everybody works very hard and very thoroughly, everything seems to happen more or less in coherent sequence, but the end result seems all efficiency and no charm. This is especially unfortunate because Amélie‘s thread-thin story depends heavily on the kind of nonsensical, reality-defying charm we call pixilated — it’s the kind of story in which a pet goldfish sings and a garden gnome plays a vital part in the action. To make an audience accept such cheerfully blatant implausibilities, you’ve got to create a cheerfully blatant atmosphere that welcomes them in without undue pressure; as a musical, Amélie lacks that lightness. The pressure to make a Broadway hit always feels present, and as a consequence the story, which tells how Amélie finds her vocation as a sort of clandestine personal philanthropist, and through her philanthropies finally finds love, seems earnest and illogical rather than whimsically easy to go along with.
Part of the problem is that Lucas’s script keeps reiterating what used to be called the Paradox of Zeno, which the heroine’s mother teaches her early on. The Greek philosopher Zeno asserted that an arrow shot toward a target could only reach its goal by first traveling half the distance, then half the remaining distance, and so on, implying that the arrow can never precisely reach its target, but can only go to yet another halfway point. Meaning, as Tom Stoppard said in one of the better jokes in his play Jumpers, that “Saint Sebastian died of fright.” As Amélie‘s uncertain heroine and her indecisive photographer lover kept inching halfway toward each other, I kept remembering Stoppard’s quip and fearing that one or the other of them might die of fright before they finally clinched. The paradox — mine, not Zeno’s — is that Amélie caused me this distraction by trying so strenuously to hold my attention. A little relaxation of that insistent Broadway grip might have made it a great deal easier to enjoy. I fear the logical conclusion must be that they do these things better in France.
208 West 41st Street
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street