Patti LuPone stars as makeup titan Helena Ruberstein in the new musical "War Paint," also starring Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Cast two larger-than-life actresses like Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in a show about two larger-than-life historical figures embroiled in an epic battle of wills, and the audience will rightly be primed for the musical theater equivalent of a firecracker factory explosion.
As it turns out, though, the new Broadway musical “War Paint,” about the lives of makeup titans Helena Rubenstein (LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole), is earnest and relatively subdued, less scratch-your-eyes-out catfight than uplifting feminist celebration.
Whether this works for you or not is likely a matter of expectations. Anyone heading into “War Paint” looking for “Valley of the Dolls”-style hair-pulling — or even “Dynasty”-style name calling — will likely be disappointed; in fact, until the very last scene, LuPone and Ebersole’s characters don’t even directly speak to one another.
On the other hand, for those who’ve grown tired of seeing powerful women forever portrayed as shrill and feuding divas in popular culture (see everything from Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj on “American Idol” to the new Bette Davis-Joan Crawford melodrama “Feud”) “War Paint” attempts an alternative — a portrait of competition between women that is nuanced, empathetic and maybe even exemplary.
Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s book “War Paint,” as well as the documentary film “The Powder & the Glory,” “War Paint” takes us through three decades in the lives of these women, both immigrants who felt like outcasts despite the millions they earned. The competition between them heats up when Rubenstein’s right-hand man (Douglas Sills) quits to join Arden’s firm, which prompts Arden’s threatened husband (John Dossett) to divorce her and join Rubenstein’s firm.
Directed by Michael Greif (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and written by Doug Wright (“Grey Gardens”), the story ping pongs back and forth between the two women, without ever fully investing us in their drama. That might be because the real-life drama is more apocryphal than literal — by all accounts, Rubenstein and Arden were fierce rivals, but never actually met. The “war” promised by the title turns out to be not much of a war at all, climaxing at the end of act one. The second act, in turn, feels like a very extended epilogue.
Still, “War Paint” gives both stars plenty of room to shine. As might be expected, LuPone — who has never been afraid to flirt with camp — gives the funnier, flashier performance (at times her Polish accent is so thick she sounds like she’s once again playing Eva Peron in “Evita”). Ebersole grounds the show with her tenderness and quiet dignity, and she’s the one who gets arguably the musical’s best number, “Pink,” an aching ballad about how, no matter how high you think you’ve risen, there’s always someone looking to drag you down.
Speaking of the music (by Scott Frankel, with lyrics by Michael Korie), it is always listenable, if not quite as often memorable. And while various aspects of the story are undeveloped (the real-life Rubenstein had two children, who are nowhere to be seen here), the gorgeous costumes (by Catherine Zuber), the bubblegum- and baby-blue-shaded lighting (by Kenneth Posner) and the Art Deco-style set design (by David Korins) make this one of the best looking shows of the year. On that latter score, at least, Rubenstein and Arden could only be proud.
Gently Down the Stream
In 1980, the Camden-reared playwright Martin Sherman received Pulitzer and Tony nominations for “Bent,” his ferocious historical drama about gay men in a Nazi prison camp. Sherman, now 78, remains very much preoccupied with gay history — as evidenced by his imperfect, but very moving new work “Gently Down the Stream,” now playing at the Public Theater.
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein star in “Gently Down the Steam,” a new play by Martin Sherman, now playing at the Public Theater in New York (Photo by Joan Marcus)Christopher Kelly | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Harvey Fierstein plays Beau, an almost Candide-like nightclub pianist, who counts among his famous friends Mabel Mercer and James Baldwin, who was present at the burning of the UpStairs Lounge in 1973 in New Orleans, and who later watched his lover die during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Now ensconced in London and mostly having given up on life, he finds himself reanimated by a handsome young boyfriend named Rufus (Gabriel Ebert, from “Matilda”) three-and-a-half decades his junior.
Some of the storytelling here is clunky, especially an unnecessary subplot involving Rufus’ manic-depressive tendencies, and Fierstein seems to have been cast more for his own connection to gay history (his 1982 play “Torch Song Trilogy” was one of the first mainstream Broadway hits to center on gay characters) than his less-than-convincing ability to master a New Orleans accent.
But Sherman is wrestling with rich and complicated ideas, about the struggles of a generation of gay men to make sense of their lives, especially as social attitudes towards homosexuality have changed radically in recent decades. The show moves from hope to heartbreak, and it ends — in lovely fashion, with a nursery rhyme sung by Fierstein — poised on a pinpoint between the two.
Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st St, New York
Tickets: $69-$179, available online at www.ticketmaster.com. On sale through Sept. 3.
Gently Down the Stream
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York
Tickets:$95, available online at www.publictheater.org. Through May 21.