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Theater Review: Kalamazoo Civic's War Paint

Brian Wolfe
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre’s production of “War Paint” runs through May 19th. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

A new musical about two twentieth century mavens of make-up is making its regional premiere this month in a colorful and fluid production on the Civic’s main stage.

Gina Maria Chimner as Elizabeth Arden and Carrie McNulty as Helena Rubinstein provide the power performances needed to sustain both of these roles and fuel the cut-throat rivalry between two of America’s most successful business women.

For starters, each of these actresses knows how to make an entrance.

Early in the show, Chimner takes command of the stage and, backed by her Arden Girls, comes to the rescue of women in search of beauty. In “Behind the Red Door”, she strides around her salon, extolling its promise to transport customers into a world of luxury and transform their features through vibrating belts and little pink jars of facial cream.

Credit Brian Wolfe / Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

McNulty, as Rubinstein, makes a regal descent from an ocean liner arriving from Europe to greet an eager press corps with news about her cosmetic empire. She proclaims a scientific approach to make up, and in the song “My Secret Weapon,” reveals the ingredient that sets her facial cream apart: the hormone estrogen.

One of the more interesting aspects of this uniquely American story is the triumph of female industrial leadership in a male-dominated era. In spite of their achievements, both characters bemoan the loss of their real potential for success in “If I’d Been a Man”.

As it moves through several decades from the Thirties to the 1960’s, “War Paint” details the fascinating story of two lives and careers that parallel one another. Arden and Rubinstein trade husbands, partners, and, more importantly, marketing directors. They steal each other’s secrets and are both called to testify before Congress about what’s really in their products’ ingredients.

Along the way, each woman encounters societal prejudice. McNulty is effective in detailing her heavily-accented Jewish character’s failure to secure a Park Avenue penthouse. In “Now You Know,” she gloats that her rival’s membership in the Mayfair Club has been rejected because Arden is considered too nouveau riche.

The Civic’s revolving stage and new digital cyclorama provide a panorama of locales to tell a story that jumps around in time and space. David Kyhn’s attractive scenic design begins with a Deco cityscape that can also transform the stage into an office, a restaurant, or a Senate chamber.

Jennifer Hudson-Prenkert’s choreography, hair and makeup, as well as Elaine Kauffman’s costumes, help establish time changes and period fashion.

Although director Tony Humrichouser’s production is professional from both a performance and technical standpoint, some who attend “War Paint” might find the score and lyrics missing elements found in more traditional musicals.

First, there seems to be a lack of heartstrings in “War Paint”. There is no real romantic interest or true friendship to engage our sympathies. This is partly due to the hardboiled nature of the business world that the two lead characters inhabit.

It’s also a function of the unsympathetic way that some supporting characters are written. Arden’s husband Tommy, played by Tim Kilmartin and Harry, Rubinstein’s Marketing Director, played by Todd Spratt, switch firms and love interests as casually as they switch neck-ties. Performances by Nate Mielke, as Revlon magnate Charles Revson, and Ari Coleman, as the Revlon Girl, do bring much in the way of sizzle and heat to the incendiary “Fire and Ice."

Also missing in “War Paint” is the big production number found in most musicals toward the end of the first act that seals the deal emotionally with the audience - and ensures that all Act One theatregoers return to their seats for Act Two.

Act Two does, however, provide a strong ending and a satisfying conclusion with “Beauty in the World”. Chimner and McNulty, late in the lives of their characters, rise to deliver a stirring and melodic homage to a bygone era when beauty reigned supreme.

Which begs the question: what replaced the female fixation with facial features? One needs only to reflect on one of “War Paint’s” most memorable images: a dozen well-dressed urban women pausing in unison to stare at their hand-held compact mirrors, with the same diligence now used to check mobile phones.

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