As I write, I’m on an American Airlines flight back to London after a spectacular stay in New York. It was a business trip but there was an awful lot of time to play. I had a Museum Mile afternoon revisiting the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum. Despite being a gloomy old barn of a mansion, the Frick is worth the ticket for the Holbein the Younger portraits of Sir Thomas Moore and Thomas Cromwell.
My favourite galleries in the Met are the Jane Wrightsman Galleries of historic interiors rescued from demolished palaces and mansions in Europe then rebuilt in the museum with all the original furniture in place. It always amuses me when Doris from Hoboken nudges Pearl and says ‘I couldn’t live in that’ as she points to an 18th century music room from a Loire chateau. My response? ‘Try me’.
This trip was really all about Broadway for me. First up was War Paint the musical inspired by a book of the same name penned by La Farmer’s friend Lindy Woodhead. The stars are Broadway belters Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole playing rival beauty queens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.
What was right with it? Patti Lupone is a force of nature who plays East European Jewish battle axe Helena Rubenstein with visceral guts, glory and cynicism. Patti’s vibrato is an instrument of such power. She slices notes like chopped liver. Rubinstein’s jewels – presumably Verdura, Boivin and Flato – are spectacular as is the scene where Madame luxuriates in bed with a claw-on-stick to reach jewels, letters and pastries.
Ebersole is the ostensibly patrician Arden whose signature colour is pink and whose lotions and potions are a fraction of the price of the ribbons on the bottles. Arden is a steel butterfly and Ebersole captures a woman with a mind like a steel trap for whom appearances are everything.
It is evident that both Rubinstein and Arden are snake oil saleswomen – particularly when a court orders them to reveal their ingredients – but also that they were capitalist feminist role models in an era when women on top were treated with the deepest suspicion. The book is really rather brilliant and I was reminded of nothing so much as the film biopic of rival Hollywood gossip queens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons called Malice in Wonderland.
There is no attempt to take the spotlight away from Lupone and Ebersole with ingenue love stories. But I would have loved to have seen a lot more of the young Turk Charles ‘Revlon’ Revson and his poster girl Dorian Leigh. Dorian gets a great number when Revlon’s Fire & Ice campaign topples Rubinstein and Arden. It is the sexiest and most memorable song in the show.
It is unforgivable to leave a Broadway show and not have a single tune sung by the leads dancing in your head. There was one eleven o clock number given to Ebersole about Arden Pink. The song was only memorable because the word ‘Pink’ was repeated about 100 times including a mawkish reference to pink being the babe Arden never bore. Pass the sick bucket, Maud.
You cannot fault Lupone or Ebersole for this two-hander but you could see Lupone channelling her Eva Peron and Norma Desmond in frustration that the material was a mite too thin for her talent. Nobody could accuse Hello Dolly! of being thin.
I can’t tell you how excited I was to be leaning on a red velvet balustrade at the back of the stalls in the Schubert Theater with my ‘Sippy Cup’ of Sauvignon in hand waiting for the curtain to go up on Bette Midler’s Dolly! Evidently the role is made for 71-year old Miss M and the supporting cast assembled around her has more power than the national grid.
Lesser stars might not have couched David Hyde Pierce’s scene-stealing as Horace Vandergelder and the juvenile lover quartet being quite so effervescent. Canny Miss Midler knows that this is going to be a sell-out long run and she is going to need to keep her powder dry. So by and large she lets her cast give till it hurts and saves her high notes and high volts for the big numbers.
On the plus side, Dolly appears early in the production (unlike War Paint) with a grin from ear-to-ear underneath a straw boater and delivers patter song Just Leave Everything to Me with chutzpah and laughs. Perhaps justifiably, Bette absorbs the adoration coming in waves from the auditorium and takes the breaks standing ovations allow.
There is no getting around the fact that Miss M repeatedly saves her voice by mouthing the words when the chorus are at full belt rather than leading them. We got to the end of act one show stopper Before the Parade Passes By happy but not overwhelmed. Parade is one of those Bolero numbers that builds to a big Ethel Merman finish. I saw Bette Midler hit high notes repeatedly at the O2 in London where she gave the show of a lifetime. For Dolly! she vamped it.
Act Two of Hello Dolly! is a basic hold-your-breath for the intro to the title song then a race to Sardi’s for a post-show supper. Whatever you’ve paid for Hello Dolly! it is worth every red cent to watch Bette Midler perform the title number in an off-the-shoulder red beaded Belle Epoque gown and a feather headdress. Miss M gives the definitive rendition of Hello Dolly! and dances up a storm with the boys. Once again it is a big ensemble number with a lot of support for the star.
Lupone and Ebersole gave their all but could not overcome so-so material whereas Miss M gave just enough in Broadway gold. If you love musicals, seeing Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! is up there with Ethel Merman in Gypsy and Patti Lupone in Evita.