Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue
Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden) sings “Pink” in WAR PAINT. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Review: WAR PAINT at Goodman Theatre
By Abigail Trabue
Let me state the obvious right off the bat—WAR PAINT is a master class in acting taught by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. It’s also a damn good reminder that women can not only carry a show, but they can slather it in face cream and wrap it up in a pretty pink bow, all while bringing down the house just for walking on stage.
You will spend 2.5 hours reminding yourself you are seeing these two larger-than-life divas, but, you might not remember a whole lot about the actual show. And that’s because there really isn’t much of a plot. Defining the way women looked at beauty for most of the 20th century, Helena Rubinstein (LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole) were fierce rivals. Their battle spans over 50 years as we witness the rise of two female led empires during a time when women were considered nouveau riche if they earned their income rather than acquired it through their husbands. We behold the rise and fall—both personally and professionally—of these women as the industry they once dominated becomes oversaturated by manufacturers who’s client is no longer the super wealthy older female trying to stave off age.
Supported by a cast of fifteen (that includes ten women), WAR PAINT features a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. It’s not a bad night at the theater—it’s definitely playing to a certain theater-going demographic—but it struggles to find a decent balance between book and music. It’s no small task to write a show that features two powerhouse protagonists played by two powerhouse Broadway stars, and yet about halfway through the first act you do feel like you’re being beaten over the head with one song for LuPone followed by another song of equal value for Ebersole, followed by a group number, followed by a duet for the two leading men in Rubinstein and Arden’s lives (enjoyably played by John Dossett and Douglas Sills whose chemistry and playfulness is spot on in “Dinosaurs”).
And while every song is attacked, and does its best to move, there is very little room for dialogue and the dialogue is when LuPone truly shines. There is no denying LuPone has pipes you could hear from the Dan Ryan—but because of the German accent we lost much of what she was saying, especially when she was belting. However, LuPone is a comedic master, and her timing was impeccable in every scene. She knows just when to drop the line, to hold the look or emphasize just the right word at just the right moment (the line about Maxwell House coffee—brilliant). You can tell Wright was writing Rubinstein with LuPone’s comedic sensibilities in mind, just as Frankel and Korie were writing Arden with Ebersole’s versatile and stunning voice in mind.
Ebersole is no slacker in the comedic realm either, but where she truly won the evening was in the vocal department. She sounds as amazing as she did when I first heard her as Ado Annie in the 1979-1980 Broadway revival of OKLAHOMA. I remember thinking how effortless, open and pure her sound was as I listened to the cast recording and tonight, all these years later, I am still in awe of the ease and colors within her voice.
You will wait the entire evening to get your payoff with WAR PAINT, but when LuPone and Ebersole finally come face to face at the end you know you are watching something incredibly special, and not because the show is saying all that much, but because you are watching two women whose careers have spanned decades work a scene that was crafted specifically for them and for their unique talents. Couple that with Ebersole’s “Pink” number and LuPone’s “Forever Beautiful” that come moments before, and you’ve got one hell of an ending on your hands.
WAR PAINT is Broadway bound, no doubt about that, but it’s got a few more minor tweaks to make if it hopes to live on past the LuPone and Ebersole era.