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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice

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July 22, 2016: Light barely seems to penetrate the atmosphere of “The Merchant of Venice” in the brooding, powerful production from Shakespeare’s Globe that’s being presented through the weekend as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Little illumination filters through the carved wooden walls that dominate the set, and a blanket of smoke often shrouds the stage like a thick fog, as if to hide the iniquity so vividly on display. The production, which stars a deeply moving Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, does begin on a frolicsome note, with masked actors dancing onstage, as during Venice’s carnival. But a note of discord, of brutality, brings the merriment to a disturbing close, as two Jewish men passing by are attacked and thrown to the ground. Throughout the director Jonathan Munby’s lucid and strongly acted staging, we will remain aware that while this Shakespearean play is classified as a comedy and is poised ambivalently between light and dark, it will generally be the baser aspects of humanity that prevail. This overriding tone, I’m sorry to say, seems eerily attuned to the current troubles that roil the world. The exception, to a degree, is Mr. Pryce’s eloquent, beautifully rendered Shylock, whose abuse at the hands of the Christians of Venice is drawn in stark relief. He is treated with an unusually vicious scorn and even violence by the title character, Antonio (Dominic Mafham), to whom he agrees to lend money in exchange for a bond demanding the famous pound of flesh. But he greets this debasement, and more, with a degree of measured calm that suggests that Shylock has known — or fears — far worse, and must temper his reaction to suit what he knows of the world in which he lives and prospers. It is only in the enclosed realm of his own home, where he can lock the brutalities of the world outside, that he feels any measure of safety. But, of course, Shylock also locks the world’s joys outside — the pleasures of music and play — feeding the discontent and yearning for freedom of his daughter, Jessica, here played with rich feeling by Mr. Pryce’s daughter, Phoebe Pryce. We can sympathize with Jessica’s sense of suffocation and her escape into the arms of the Christian Lorenzo (a likably dashing Andy Apollo), even as Ms. Pryce gently underscores Jessica’s growing ambivalence at her casual, impulsive betrayal of her father. While Mr. Pryce invests even Shylock’s fits of anger and vengeance with a measured complexity, the Portia of Rachel Pickup has fewer grace notes, coming across here mostly as a smart but imperious young woman. She asserts control over her destiny with a brisk asperity that never reveals many glints of warmth, rendering the romantic comedy of the play almost an afterthought. True, the passages in which suitors must choose among three caskets — gold, silver and lead — to win Portia’s hand, is played for robust laughs, with the Prince of Morocco portrayed as a bumbler by Giles Terra, and the Prince of Aragon as a simpering fop by Christopher Logan. But this supposed comedy’s humorous aspects are largely handed over to Stefan Adegbola’s wily, exuberant Launcelot Gobbo, who invites two members of the audience to join him onstage, embodying his debate about whether to abandon his Jewish master, Shylock, and throw his lot in with the Christians. (Gobbo’s father, a rather tiresome character, has been mercifully excised.) The trial scene, the play’s dramatic climax if not its conclusion, brings out the contrast between the affecting dignity of Mr. Pryce’s Shylock and the less palatable aspects of his enemies. Mr. Mafham’s Antonio is shackled to an iron bar, his arms splayed out and his body lifted from the ground, in a pose that obviously evokes Christ on the cross, suggesting that those who are conducting this trial are intent on drawing the comparison, turning Shylock into the stock Jew of vile stereotype, the Christ-killer. Mr. Pryce’s Shylock, meanwhile, evinces little rage and thirst for vengeance — he knows better than to fall into the traps laid for him — but instead argues his case with a measured rationality that, despite its monstrous consequences, never feels tinged with unbridled malice. On the other hand, Portia — disguised as the lawyer Bassanio, arguing for the life of Antonio — seems almost sadistic when she gives her verdict in Shylock’s favor, only to reverse herself at the last minute and, with cool calculation, assert that Shylock himself is guilty of trying to take the life of a Christian. Mr. Pryce’s confusion and abasement are painful to watch, as Antonio seems to relish his control over his persecutor’s fate, allowing him to live only if he converts to Christianity. But in the unsparing view of Mr. Munby’s production, even the victorious Antonio must face the harsh truth that those who do not conform to the prescribed standards of the Christianity of the period are doomed to be outcasts. As in many productions, it is hinted early on that Antonio’s feeling for Bassanio (a solid Dan Fredenburgh) contains elements of sexual, or at least romantic, attraction. But when, after the trial has concluded, Antonio impulsively draws Bassanio into an overly warm embrace, Bassanio rebuffs him with a disgusted shove. “The Merchant of Venice” ostensibly (well, literally) ends with the reunion of Portia and her maid Nerissa (a nicely dry Dorothea Myer-Bennett), with their lovers, Bassanio and Gratiano (Jolyon Coy). But even this scene comes across as something less than flirtatious and celebratory. There’s an element of teasing cruelty in the air as Portia and Nerissa demand to see the rings they gave to their lovers, after blackmailing them, in their male guises, into handing them over in thanks for saving the life of Bassanio’s benefactor, Antonio. The pealing of wedding bells doesn’t exactly ring in our ears as we watch them play with their men like cats batting around mice. But a more cheerful slant to the scene would belie the production’s overriding sense of melancholy. A coda depicting Shylock’s enforced baptism, while Jessica sings a Jewish prayer for forgiveness, concludes the evening on a harrowing note. Mr. Pryce illuminates Shylock’s anguish so vividly, his face a contorted mask of spiritual suffering, that it all but erases any sense of contrasting light and dark in the play. We have reached the heart of the matter, and it is a place where mercy, love and what we commonly think of as simple humanity hold little sway.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Motown: The Musical

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July 21, 2016: “What’s going on?” When Jarran Muse, playing Marvin Gaye, sings those words and a verse or two of the song they come from in “Motown: The Musical,” which has opened at the Nederlander Theater in a limited return engagement, they carry an unsettling relevance they did not have when the show originally opened more than three years ago. A celebratory musical paying tribute to the black music explosion led by Berry Gordy’s Detroit label, “Motown” devotes only a few scenes to the civil rights movement and the tumult of the late 1960s. But they give it a new and unusual relevance after more than a year of troubled race relations, with many commentators drawing comparisons (and others making distinctions) between now and then. By no means has “Motown” been transformed into a thoughtful or probing musical. Under Charles Randolph-Wright’s direction, it remains what it was: a sparkling and enjoyable, if lumpy, journey through 25 years of Motown history. It’s just that the climax of the first act, and the opening minutes of the second, give the show a jolt of emotional currency that contrasts strikingly with its nostalgic spirit. The central roles have been recast, with excellent singing actors who are mostly equal to the fine originals. As Gordy, Chester Gregory could use more intensity to illuminate the relentless — some would say ruthless — drive of the man who helped usher in a pop-music revolution. But he brings some nice nuances to the role, accentuating Gordy’s brooding grievance as the stars he created begin to desert him. (Mr. Gordy himself wrote the musical’s book.) As Diana Ross, Gordy’s love interest and one of his biggest discoveries, Allison Semmes, who understudied the role in the show’s first go-round (and played the famously ousted Supreme, Florence Ballard), exudes a mixture of calculating ambition and youthful naïveté, coquettishly keeping an eye on the main chance even as a teenager. Her singing evokes the cotton candy purr of Ms. Ross’s, without being mere vocal mimicry. And, at the performance I saw, Ms. Semmes revealed a nimbly funny way with audience interaction during the “Reach Out and Touch” number. Jesse Nager’s honeyed tenor is a perfect match for Smokey Robinson, one of Gordy’s strongest allies and early stars. Mr. Muse finds the fiery rebellious streak that emerges as Gaye finds his voice and sometimes finds himself in conflict with his boss. And as the young versions of Gordy, Little Stevie Wonder and, most spectacularly, Michael Jackson during the Jackson 5 years, Leon Outlaw Jr. proves a ferocious little dynamo, tearing up the house with his exuberance. (J. J. Batteast alternates in these junior roles.) “Motown” has so much story to tell — Mr. Gordy clearly feels a highlights reel of his career could go on forever — that there’s no time for dramatic subtlety or complexity of character. But who’s coming to see “Motown” for anything other than the fabulous songbook? (The more than 55 titles is surely a record for a jukebox musical.) True, some of your favorites may be shortchanged, or used somewhat awkwardly as “book” songs. But there’s so much music pouring from the stage that Motown fans probably won’t complain when the needle skips to the next track before they have had a chance to savor the last fully.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Takarazuka Chicago

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July 21, 2016: Do the Japanese have an expression similar to the British one, noting the folly of bringing coals to Newcastle? Maybe something about bringing a tuna fish sandwich to a sushi bar? That question arose during a performance by the celebrated all-female Japanese theater company Takarazuka on Wednesday night, a presentation of the Lincoln Center Festival at the David H. Koch Theater. The evening concluded, as all this company’s productions do, with a splashy, dizzyingly odd encore, this one lasting well over 15 minutes and including the old Frank Sinatra standard “That’s Life,” among other surrealities. But the show that preceded it was “Chicago,” the musical that has been playing for more than 20 years on Broadway. I’ll confess to some disappointment going in, since I had read about the company and heard glowing reports from friends about its dazzling spectacles and ample repertoire, which includes many other Broadway musicals but also adaptations of classic novels (“Gone With the Wind”!), operas, Shakespeare plays and movies (“Bonnie and Clyde”!). “Chicago,” with its first-rate score by John Kander and Fred Ebb and stiletto-sharp book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, is a great musical, but for theater-loving New Yorkers, it’s not exactly a novelty. My heart sank a little further when I entered the theater to see a gleaming gold proscenium looming above the stage — to knowing eyes, the signature scenic device of the City Center Encores! series. Yes, this is not a fresh take on the musical, an original production, but a virtual facsimile of the one playing a dozen or so blocks downtown, with similar slinky black costumes (by William Ivey Long), the same onstage band contained in a gold-rimmed box (the minimalist sets are by John Lee Beatty), and essentially the same direction (by Walter Bobbie) and choreography (by Ann Reinking, after Bob Fosse’s original). True, it’s performed in Japanese, but this novelty doesn’t bring any new zest to the material, and actually drains some of its cackling wit, since reading Ebb’s scabrous, cynical lyrics does not have the same sucker-punch quality of hearing them sung. And, yes, female performers play the male roles with remarkable verisimilitude. (The rigorously trained Takarazuka performers are divided into specialists in male or female roles, although they can move camps.) But “Chicago” is dominated by its two female leads, the scheming murderers Velma Kelly (Yoka Wao) and Roxie Hart (Hikaru Asami). The significant male roles are but two: the self-regarding lawyer Billy Flynn (Saori Mine) and Roxie’s dupe of a husband, Amos Hart (Chihiro Isono). All that said, I’m happy to praise the performance as a thoroughly polished, well sung and dramatically pert presentation of material I am mightily familiar with, having seen the Broadway revival probably 10 times over the years. Ms. Wao, with her lithe body, long stems and swinging ponytail, makes for an arresting presence as Velma, seething in irritation as she is forever being outmaneuvered by her rival for Billy Flynn’s services, Roxie. As this more skillful schemer, who shot her lover but manages to sweet-talk her husband into coming to her defense, Ms. Asami puts on and removes her facade of innocence with bright comic ingenuity. Ms. Isono’s Amos captures the bumbling pathos of her character nicely in her single solo number, “Mr. Cellophane.” And Ms. Mine all but steals the show in a dazzling turn as Billy Flynn, exuding suaveness, cynicism and sex appeal in equal measures, and singing in a contralto that sounds convincingly, if not eerily, masculine. The highlight of the production, in fact, is the rousing comic number “We Both Reached for the Gun,” in which Roxie sits on Billy’s knee and is manipulated like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Ms. Mine’s voice leaps between Billy’s smooth pseudo-baritone and a bright squeak representing Roxie’s dictated responses with breathtaking ease, making the number even more of a tour de force than it usually is. In the supporting roles, Jun Hatsukaze gleamed with opportunistic malice as the jail matron Mama Morton, and, in a break with Takarazuka tradition, the role of the sob sister journalist Mary Sunshine was played by (nonspoiler alert) a man, T. Okamoto, possessed of a nice operatic trill. Although the Takarazuka performers are famously well drilled in all aspects of performance, connoisseurs of the Fosse style probably will not emerge dazzled by their mastery of his work. While they certainly thrust their hips with gusto, snap their wrists and strike the right jagged poses, the effect is nevertheless a bit like Fosse doused in fabric softener. (And, unfortunately, Ms. Asami experienced cartwheel-fail in the climactic “Hot Honey Rag.”) For me, the fun really started when the musical was over, and the cast had taken its bows. The company then re-emerged, in front of a glittering Art Nouveau swirl of a set piece, to perform a supersize, Las Vegas-flavored encore. This encompassed a full nine different songs, and included Rockettes-style high kicking, a tango and such original numbers as “Glory to Be Takarasiennes” and “Takarazuka, Home in My Heart.” I cannot claim that, with “Chicago,” the company took up residence in mine. For that, I expect I will have to visit the company at its hometown base in the city that gives it its name, to see some of its more exotic repertoire. “The Rose of Versailles” or “Passion: Jose and Carmen” or even — why not? — “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Small Mouth Sounds

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July 19, 2016: “Small Mouth Sounds,” a quiet gem of a play by Bess Wohl that was first seen Off Broadway at Ars Nova last year, has been restaged at the Pershing Square Signature Center with all its wit, compassion and sparkle fully intact. The sound of silence onstage has rarely made such sweet music. For much of the play’s 100 minutes, most of the characters do not speak. It takes place at a weeklong spiritual retreat where silence is enjoined, although Ms. Wohl’s ingenuity and the sympathetic direction of Rachel Chavkin allow us to read the bleeding hearts of the characters with a lucidity that no amount of dialogue could improve upon. The men and women assembling for a psychic tuneup are a nicely varied bunch. At the head of the class would seem to be the yoga rock star Rodney (Babak Tafti), handsome, bearded, decked out in Buddhist-flavored clothing and prone to twisting his body into elaborate poses. This mildly prickles his assigned roommate, the slightly insecure Ned, who alone among the characters is given a self-explanatory monologue. He deserves a chance to unload. A few years ago poor Ned, who is played with a plangent ache by the terrific Brad Heberlee, fell when rock climbing and shattered his skull. While he was in and out of the hospital, his wife began sleeping with his brother. And it got worse from there. Ned cannot even find peace at this retreat. He takes a quiet shine to the grumpy Alicia (Zoë Winters), who is perhaps the least spiritually evolved — or enthusiastic — of the participants. Reeling from a breakup, she taps out angry texts on her phone whenever she can find a signal. To Ned’s dismay, his attempts to cozy up to her are sidelined when Rodney, more obviously a candidate for hot rebound sex, gets in the way. Also hitting relationship speed bumps recently are Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), committed partners who nevertheless are feeling some understandable strains. Judy, we learn, has recently learned she has cancer. In one of the play’s most tender passages, she has a moment of communion with Jan (Max Baker); wordlessly, we learn that he is still mourning a painful loss. Although the stage at the Signature Center is modestly larger than the one at Ars Nova, there’s no diminishment of the play’s intimacy, which is enhanced by the staging. Most of the action takes place on a rectangular playing space, with the audience seated in a few rows on either side of it. Only when they are receiving instruction from the leader of the retreat — who remains unseen but is voiced with hilariously oily piety by Jojo Gonzalez — do the characters assemble on chairs at one end of the stage. Although Mr. Baker, Ms. Bernstine and Ms. Winters are new to “Small Mouth Sounds,” they inhabit their characters with the same full-hearted openness that marks the work of the actors who are returning to their roles. In a summer of disturbing discord and violence, it’s heartening to renew acquaintance with a play that leaves you moved, refreshed and, yes, maybe even a little enlightened.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Privacy

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July 18, 2016: Grim tidings are spread with great cheer in “Privacy,” James Graham and Josie Rourke’s perky investigation into the consequences of living your life online. This London-born production from 2014 — which opened in an updated, Americanized version (“Brexit” jokes!) at the Public Theater on Monday night — stars a charmingly woebegone Daniel Radcliffe as a writer who has conflicted feelings about all his relationships, but especially the one with the internet. The presence of the man who played Harry Potter isn’t the only reason “Privacy” has become one of New York’s hottest tickets. Viewed as a play, it is neither as profound as it aspires to be nor even entirely cohesive. But it ingeniously recreates that most venerable of entertainments, the magic show, in a form ideally suited to the second decade of the 21st century. Like the work of celebrated prestidigitators (like David Copperfield, Penn & Teller) and mentalists (Derren Brown, the Amazing Kreskin), “Privacy” dazzles and baffles by seeming to know exactly what selected audience members are thinking — and who they are, what they’ve done and where they’ve been. And like such traditional fare, this show fully intends to make you say “wow!” again and again. But “Privacy” goes one painful, enlightening step further by always putting the “ow!” in “wow!” That’s because the secret-wranglers onstage — embodied by a vivacious supporting cast — are not relying principally on human intuition or hidden accomplices or bait-and-switch techniques. No, they can look deep into what passes for your soul these days because they have access to your smartphones. [ “Privacy” is part comedy, part documentary, part lecture-demonstration and part fourth-wall smasher ] In other words, Big Brother and company have replaced the dashing figures who pull rabbits out of hats. Though the play quotes the phrase “be not afeard” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the purpose of “Privacy” is to scare you silly, through only seemingly silly means. By the way, one of the folks who recites those words happens to be Edward J. Snowden — the exiled, whistle-blowing computer whiz and former National Security Agency contractor — whose appearance here is made possible by the double-edged technology that gives “Privacy” its style and substance. I think it’s O.K. to mention Mr. Snowden. (His videotaped appearance in “Privacy” has already been reported.) Like most magic shows, this one ends with a statement from its star (Mr. Radcliffe), asking that we not give away its manifold surprises for future audiences. Since one of the main points of the evening is that no secret is keepable anymore, this feels like a sadly quixotic request, a paradox that Mr. Graham’s script doesn’t exploit as dizzyingly as it might. But to avoid being stigmatized as a spoiler, I will honor Mr. Radcliffe’s plea. Which doesn’t leave me with a whole lot to talk about, except in abstract terms, and the coolest tricks in “Privacy” involve very detailed specifics. Like personal specifics. Like your personal specifics. There is a reason that, for once in a New York theater, you are encouraged to leave your smartphones on throughout the show. Heck, this production even provides free Wi-Fi for you. All the better to see you with, my dears. I’m making “Privacy” sound creepier and more compelling than it ultimately is. As written by Mr. Graham (the author of the terrific British Parliament docudrama “This House”) and Ms. Rourke (the artistic director of Donmar Warehouse in London, where “Privacy” originated), this production is respectful about never crossing certain lines with those watching it, though it promises that it could if it wanted to. The lost soul portrayed by Mr. Radcliffe, known simply as the Writer, is treated less gently. When the play begins, he has just ended a relationship with someone to whom he refers with the gender-neutral pronoun of “they.” Even speaking to his new psychiatrist, Josh Cohen (Reg Rogers), the Writer is coy about “they” — who appears to have walked out precisely because the Writer is so withholding of his innermost self. Being English, he says, he is an instinctively private person, with “a phobia of being known.” In an effort to break down those self-isolating walls, he crosses the Atlantic to New York City, where his ex now resides. (It turns out to be a he, for the record.) Little does the Writer know, at this point, how completely known he is already, simply because he uses his smartphone and laptop. On hand to edify him are a host of fantasy versions of real people who embody different sides of the argument on public versus private selves. Such academic cultural commentators as Sherry Turkle, Jill Lepore and Daniel Solove are introduced to debate the pros and cons of virtual communality. (The real Ms. Turkle, drolly played here by Rachel Dratch, will be participating in a “Privacy” forum at the Public on Aug. 1.) Retailing entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley executives; representatives of government surveillance agencies; politicians and journalists (among them, Ewen MacAskill, a reporter for the London publication The Guardian who helped break the Snowden story) — they also appear to explain how completely we expose ourselves every time we log on. They are brought to chipper, slightly cartoonish life by a cast appealingly rounded out by De’Adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian and Michael Countryman. The technical team — which includes Lucy Osborne (sets), Richard Howell (lighting) and Duncan McLean (projections) — adroitly conjures a world in which what we see on tiny screens seems to grow into three dimensions, even as so-called real life flattens out. The parts of the show I can’t talk about — the many audience participation sequences — are both its giddiest and most sobering. “Privacy” doesn’t provide much material that hasn’t been rehashed many times in newspaper and magazine (and blog and vlog) essays. It can feel rather like one of those middle school instructional films that use a likable animated creature (a talking dinosaur or skeleton, maybe) to keep its distractible young viewers hooked. The scene in which I felt most engaged, confused and affected involves little techno sleight of hand, just a very deft performer (that would be Mr. Radcliffe) treading water in an improvisational sequence. Or was it? I can say no more. But it’s a relief to be able to report that “Privacy” shines brightest when it comes down to a single actor plying centuries-old tricks of his trade.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: War Paint

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July 19, 2016: CHICAGO — For a musical that covers so many years — and so many shades of lipstick — “War Paint” never really seems to move forward. This portrait of battling cosmetic titans, which opened on Monday at the Goodman Theater here starring a deliciously paired Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, doesn’t just show its whole hand from the get-go; it does so as eagerly as a debutante with a fabulous new manicure. Written by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), and directed by Michael Greif, “War Paint” lets you know exactly what it is and where it’s going (or not going) in a prologue, so you can decide right away if it’s your cup of skin toner. Seated on opposite sides of the stage at vanity tables are two middle-aged women in peignoirs appraising themselves in the mirror and applying the ritualistic goo of the show’s title — that is, their makeup. They are, it turns out, Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965) and Elizabeth Arden (1881-1966), two masters of self-invention who ruled the American beauty market during the mid-20th century. As embodied here, these glamorous gals look as joltingly different as, well, Ms. LuPone (playing Rubinstein) and Ms. Ebersole (Arden), marquee Broadway performers who have dominated many a musical, though in utterly dissimilar styles. (For the record, they are both in top form here.) But wait a minute. The Polish-born Rubinstein may have the exotic and imperious countenance of an aging silent movie vamp (crossed with Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein”), while the perky, blond Arden could pass as Beaver Cleaver’s mother. And throughout the show, David Korins’s set, which conjures period opulence with efficient minimalism, and Catherine Zuber’s luxe costumes (not minimalist at all) underscore the gap between its leading divas. Yet don’t these women have a lot in common, too? After all, they’re singing the same tune and sharing lyrics about the difficulty of being women who must put on masks to face the world. Though they may be born to clash, Rubinstein and Arden are, as the script has it, “sisters in suffering.” It will take them and two and a half more hours of similarly symmetrical scenes, usually played in direct, crosscutting counterpoint, to confess their bond to each other. (The show’s rhythms can be boiled down to: They’re totally different! No, they’re totally alike!) The production seems to have taken to heart one of Arden’s marketing mantras to her sales staff: “Remember girls! Repetition makes reputation.” The title of the opening number is “A Woman’s Face,” which also happens to be the name of a 1941 film directed by George Cukor and starring Joan Crawford. This is appropriate, since “War Paint” brings to mind many movies of that period, hen flicks (its stars were too regal to be chicks) like “The Women” and “Old Acquaintance,” in which female antagonists in to-die-for dresses did fierce battle with one another, tooth and clawed epigram. The creators of “War Paint” appreciate the pulpy appeal of such cinematic fare, in which exaggerated artificial surfaces and quippy badinage conceal ravenous ambition and broken hearts. But “War Paint” also pauses to question the social values of a system that forces women to conceal their imperfections. Or as a lyric from the end of the show asks: “Did we make women freer, or did we enslave them?” It is safe to assume that such sociological debate is not what will hold the attention of audiences for “War Paint,” which has been selling fast in Chicago and is possibly bound for Broadway. No, that would be the sight and sound of Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole, both two-time Tony winners, as their characters pursue rigid parallel paths for four decades, never actually meeting but always emulously aware of each other. They are, as another character wildly describes them, “locked in a malevolent tango, sailing over a cliff.” Arden on Rubinstein: “Royalty? She’s as common as a cabbage.” Rubinstein on Arden: “Pedigreed? Ha! She — what? — stepped off the Pilgrim boat in her Chanel pumps? I know the truth, Harry. She’s Canadian!” (Ms. LuPone, as you may imagine, milks the comic potential of Rubinstein’s Polish accent and malapropisms for all they’re worth.) Such zingers — along with more accounts of the packaging and marketing of cosmetics than you surely ever expected from a musical — punctuate scenes in which both women face the same obstacles. These include congressional hearings on the misrepresentation of their products, social rejection, World War II (a sequence that flirts with bad taste), the advent of vulgar hard-sell advertising (rendered in a “Mad Men”-style production number snappily choreographed by Christopher Gattelli) and the cruel march of changing times. They also can’t hold onto their guys, who in this version are Arden’s husband (and business manager), Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), and Rubinstein’s business manager, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), who is gay, snarky and adoring. (You may draw parallels with part of this show’s target demographic only if you choose.) Played with hangdog miens by the gifted Mr. Dossett and Mr. Sills, these men soon betray their bosses and switch sides. Please note that though the musical was inspired by the biography “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary film “The Powder & the Glory,” the script by Mr. Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) telescopes, rearranges and modifies history in the service of blunt thematic tidiness. As a study in contrasts, “War Paint” quickly turns monochrome. Fortunately, Mr. Frankel and Mr. Korie’s score plays knowingly to its stars’ respective strengths, with swirling, lyrical melodies for Arden and jagged, Kurt Weillian ones for Rubinstein. Ms. Ebersole — who collaborated previously with the “War Paint” team to Tony-winning brilliance in “Grey Gardens” — brings not just enameled chipperness but also a startling glimpse of genuine, self-surprising pain to her singing. Her climactic solo of reckoning, “Pink,” is a knockout. So is Ms. LuPone’s parallel number (you can imagine the show’s writers dividing up the star turns very carefully). Of course, these women each have their own sui generis approaches to a song. Ms. LuPone, an idiosyncratic belter, wrestles melodies to the mat in freestyle, while Ms. Ebersole is a sparkling precisionist. It is all the more surprising that on the occasions they sing together, their voices flow into a single powerful, poignant stream. Like the dominating women they portray, these actresses have more in common than you might think. That includes a blessed gift for finding emotional substance, and animating variety, in what is otherwise a frozen diptych. And no, that is not the name of a spa treatment.

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