Photo: Joan Marcus

  • Opening Night:
    July 18, 2016
    August 21, 2016

    Theater: Goodman Theatre / 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL, 60601


    Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden defined beauty standards for the first half of the 20th Century. Brilliant innovators with humble roots, both were masters of self-invention who sacrificed everything to become the country’s first major female entrepreneurs. They were also fierce competitors, whose 50-year tug-of-war would give birth to an industry. From Fifth Avenue society to the halls of Congress, their rivalry was relentless and legendary—pushing both women to build international empires in a world dominated by men.


    War Paint’ Recalls Two Cosmetics Titans

    Ben Brantley

    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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