×

Broadway Review: ‘War Paint’ Starring Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole

With:
Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, John Dossett, Douglas Sills, et al.

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Broadway Review: 'War Paint' Starring Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole

Nederlander Theater; 1,168 seats; $169 top; opened April 6, 2017, reviewed April 5. Running time: TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A David Stone, Marc Platt, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Marcia Goldberg, Universal Stage Productions, Independent Presenters Network, and the Goodman Theater presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Michael Korie, and music by Scott Frankel, inspired by "War Paint," by Lindy Woodhead, and "The Powder & the Glory" by Ann Carol Grossman & Arnie Reisman.

Creative: Directed by Michael Greif. Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Sets, David Korins; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Brian Ronan; wigs, David Brian Brown; makeup, Angelina Avallone; orchestrations, Bruce Coughlin; production stage manager, Tripp Phillips.

Cast: Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, John Dossett, Douglas Sills, et al.

More Legit

  • Protesters demonstrate at the Broadway opening

    'West Side Story' Broadway Opening Night Sparks Protests

    Roughly 100 protestors gathered outside the Broadway premiere of “West Side Story” on Thursday night, carrying placards and chanting in unison to demand the removal of cast member Amar Ramasar. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ramasar has got to go,” they cried while holding signs that read “Keep predators off the stage,” “Sexual predators shouldn’t get [...]

  • West Side Story review

    'West Side Story': Theater Review

    Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, “West Side Story” – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts in the new Broadway revival from edgy Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. (Can [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Closing in March After Box Office Struggles

    “The Inheritance,” a sprawling and ambitious epic that grappled with the legacy of the AIDS epidemic, will close on March 15. The two-part play has struggled mightily at the box office despite receiving strong reviews. Last week, it grossed $345,984, or 52% of its capacity, a dispiriting number for a show that was reported to [...]

  • MCC theater presents 'Alice By Heart'

    Steven Sater on Adapting 'Alice by Heart' From a Musical to a Book

    When producers approached lyricist Steven Sater (“Spring Awakening”) to adapt Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” into a musical, his initial reaction was to recoil. His initial thought was that the book didn’t have a beginning, middle and an ending. But Sater pulled it off with his production of “Alice By Heart.” After an off-Broadway [...]

  • The Lehman Trilogy review

    Sam Mendes' 'Lehman Trilogy' Kicks off Ahmanson's New Season

    Sam Mendes’ “The Lehman Trilogy,” which took London’s West End by storm will be part of the Ahmanson’s lineup for the 2020-21 season. It will be joined by Broadway hits “Hadestown” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Artistic director Michael Ritchie announced the season that will also feature four fan favorites and another production to be [...]

  • Zoe Caldwell Dead

    Zoe Caldwell, Four-Time Tony Winner, Dies at 86

    Zoe Caldwell, an Australian actress with a talent for illuminating the human side of imposing icons such as Cleopatra and Maria Callas in a career that netted her four Tony Awards, died on Sunday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to her son Charlie Whitehead. She was 86. Caldwell occasionally appeared in television and [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band interview

    Listen: How 'Cambodian Rock Band' Became One of the Most Produced Plays in the U.S.

    One of the hottest trends in American theater this season is Cambodian surf rock from the 1970s — and that’s thanks to “Cambodian Rock Band.” Listen to this week’s Stagecraft podcast below: Playwright Lauren Yee’s genre-bending stage show, part family drama and part rock concert, has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. this season. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content