“War Paint” is a musical about Catherine Zuber’s fabulous costumes and magnificent hats, as modeled by the great Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein, and her Highness, Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden. And if those hallowed names mean nothing to you, this is not your show.
The world at large may look upon the mighty business empires built by beauty purveyors Madame Helena Rubinstein (on your knees to diva Patti LuPone) and Miss Elizabeth Arden (big bow to diva Christine Ebersole) as the lucrative rackets of two calculating businesswomen profiting from the body-image anxiety of their emotionally needy clients. In Doug Wright’s reverential book, however, the cosmetology queens become pioneering icons of female empowerment. In helmer Michael Greif’s worshipful production, they are also monumental clothes horses.
I am not kidding — it really is hard to concentrate on the plot when Ebersole is swanning around in a gorgeous rose-petal-pink silk suit. Or when Lupone steps out in a billowing taffeta number dripping with thick strands of faux gems. Luckily, there’s not much plot to distract from these carefully nuanced characters, their amazing careers and dazzling wardrobes.
Although their salons were only a few blocks from one another on Fifth Avenue, these lifelong rivals never met in real life. In fact, their only face-to-face encounter is the fictional one in the final scene of this show, when the creatives — Doug Wright (book), Michael Korie (lyrics), and Scott Frankel (music) — bring them together to sing their only duet (the anthemic “Beauty in the World”). Aside from this stirring moment, the divas pretty much keep to their separate territories on opposite sides of the stage. Admittedly, this takes the tension out of their personalized professional feud. But it also focuses our attention on their larger-than-life characters.
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Arden’s turf defines her. To warm up her kingdom behind the famous Red Door, lighting designer Kenneth Posner throws a pink glow over the rows and rows of bottles and jars and pots and urns of beauty products that line the walls of David Korins’ abstract set. More than the thematic color of her cosmetics, pink also refers to the American Beauty Rose (“the color of every woman’s childhood”) that represents Arden’s image of ideal beauty. In our eyes, though, it’s Ebersole’s sardonic, spine-tingling rendering of “Pink” (in which she acknowledges that “The boxes packaged with a bow …. cost more than the lotion” they contain) that make her truly rose-worthy.
As played by the redoubtable LuPone (with a thick Eastern European accent and snapping jaws of steel), Rubinstein is a formidable opponent, indeed. Conceding the pink-and-girly field to Arden, she introduces her own cosmetics line (in “My Secret Weapon”) as representing the latest advances in the European “science” of beauty. (“Science and beauty, they are dancing cheek to cheek,” as Helena puts it.) Her own signature colors are — of course — cool blue and hygienic white.
The “Grey Gardens” team is reunited and in good form here. The music feels right for both the individual characters and the progressive time frames. The lyrics suit the characters and serve the plot. And the book is smart and literate — although opening the story in 1935, when both women had already achieved success, deprives us of watching them struggle to rise above their backgrounds and overcome anti-Semitism, in Rubenstein’s case, and upper-class social snobbery, in Arden’s.
While much is made of their fierce competitive practices, there’s little at stake here, aside from the loyalties of their male partners. Arden’s husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), betrays her, as does Rubinstein’s marketing genius, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills). Which leads to the provocatively titled song, “If I’d Been a Man,” in which Elizabeth and Helena bitterly note that, “A man on the move / Doesn’t need to prove his worth / Knows his way from birth.” But upon deeper reflection, they both conclude: “What man has half the balls that I have?”
Although the book limits the heights and depths of the women’s titanic characters, the songs (and their cutting lyrics) pick up the slack. Just as Elizabeth bares her soul in “Pink,” Rubinstein reveals herself in “Forever Beautiful.” It’s a definitive number, delivered at full strength by LuPone, in which Helena acknowledges that great artists like Raoul Dufy and Dali “made me beautiful … forever beautiful” through their portraits of her.
If there’s a moral to this book-lite show, it’s that, at a time when only prostitutes and loose women used makeup, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein liberated women by allowing them to claim their own identities by painting their own faces the way they liked them. There is, of course, the negative view that makeup is ultimately demeaning and women are stupid for covering up their natural beauty. But as someone who wants to be buried with her eyeliner and mascara, I resent that slur.