Cosmetic moguls’ rivalry revealed in ‘War Paint’

By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)

What truly establishes “War Paint” as one of the most unusual Broadway experiences is that rarely are two Tony Award winning actresses allowed to share the stage with one another and stand strongly pound-for-pound, song-by-song next to each other and sing and act their hearts out.

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Patti LuPone, left, as Helena Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden in “War Paint” now playing at the Nederlander Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

It is the glue that holds this two-act musical drama together and the star power of Patti Lupone as Helena Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden which drives this historical narrative

The long-standing vehicle for Broadway books has been to establish leading roles which interact with one another – the classic “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” plotline. But with this Michael Greif directed vehicle, book writer Doug Wright had one major consideration to get around that would have confounded most, less-gifted writers.

As far as researchers knew, both immigrants “Madame Rubinstein” (born Chaya Rubinstein in Krakow, Poland) and “Miss Arden” (born Florence Nightingale Graham in rural Ontario, Canada) never so much as breathed on each other. This, according to biographer Libby Whitehead, who wrote the original book “War Paint,” and inspired the PBS documentary “The Powder and the Glory” on the two, was intentional. The two were so competitive that they could not and would not view each other as anything more than monolithic business adversaries.

War Paint Goodman Theater The Goodman Theatre production of the new musical War Paint, which stars two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone ( Evita, Gypsy) and Christine Ebersole ( 42nd Street, Grey Gardens) as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, respectively, begins previews June 28 prior to an official opening July 18 at the Chicago venue. The Tony-winning actresses are joined by John Dossett as Tommy Lewis, Arden’s husband and chief marketing officer, and Douglas Sills as the ambitious Harry Fleming, Madame Rubinstein’s clubby confidante and faithful ally. Also in the company are Mary Ernster, Leslie Donna Flesner, David Girolmo, Joanna Glushak, Chris Hoch, Mary Claire King, Steffanie Leigh, Erik Liberman, Barbara Marineau, Stephanie Jae Park and Angel Reda. Due to ticket demand, the production announced June 28 that the musical has been extended for a second and final time through August 21 in the Albert Theatre. War Paint is a world-premiere musical by librettist Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, choreographer Christopher Gattelli and director Michael Greif. The musical is inspired by the book War Paint, by Lindy Woodhead, and the documentary film The Powder & the Glory, by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman. The War Paint creative team includes David Korins (set design), Catherine Zuber (costume design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design) and Brian Ronan (sound design), Bruce Coughlin (orchestrations) and Lawrence Yurman (music director).

The proud and defiant Jewess Helena Rubinstein as portrayed by Patti LuPone. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

This is the major challenge that needs to be overcome for Wright. Some of the scenes were so contrived that they stretched the limits of believability, even in the theatre where such things are commonplace. Yet, Wright is creative in the way he approaches his subjects and is truthful to their dramatis personae. It is extremely doubtful many others could have pulled off such a script, which sustains action over the course of five decades and historical periods, while incorporating changing styles and tastes in fashion.

The music score by Scott Frankel with lyrics by Michael Korie have quite a number of tour-de-force numbers for each of the stars as well as a few for the two male protagonists of Tommy Lewis, played by John Dossett, and Harry Fleming, played by Douglas Sills. Act 2’s “Dinosaurs” is especially welcomed as a number that entirely lacks estrogen, one of Rubinstein’s secret ingredients in her facial cream.

The supporting ensemble is played almost entirely by shapely young women for whom beauty products are ancillary or by more matronly ladies for whom those same products are quite essential. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography has an endless stream of actors moving onto the stage as both characters of Madame Rubinstein and Miss Arden or Lewis and Fielding arrive to the front.

Huge signs bearing the signatures of both cosmetics titans grace the stage at various times as large and forceful as the women whose lives were represented.

War Paint Nederlander Theatre PATTI LUPONE Helena Rubinstein CHRISTINE EBERSOLE Elizabeth Arden OHN DOSSETT Tommy Lewis DOUGLAS SILLS Harry Fleming BARBARA JO BEDNARCZUK PATTI COHENOUR MARY ERNSTER DAVID GIROLMO JOANNA GLUSHAK CHRIS HOCH MARY CLAIRE KING STEFFANIE LEIGH ERIK LIBERMAN BARBARA MARINEAU DONNA MIGLIACCIO STEPHANIE JAE PARK JENNIFER RIAS ANGEL REDA TALLY SESSIONS DOUG WRIGHT Book SCOTT FRANKEL Music MICHAEL KORIE Lyrics MICHAEL GREIF Director CHRISTOPHER GATTELLI Choreography LINDY WOODHEAD Author, War Paint

Christine Ebersole, right, with John Dossett. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Wright weaves Rubinstein’s defiant attitude into his script very effectively and LuPone, who speaks in a thick Polish accent, is at her best when she is seen warding off blatant or sometimes hidden rebukes for her having been born as a Jew. The anti-Semitism Rubinstein knew as a youngster and the hate of the Nazis she knew from afar is imbued in LuPone’s performance, at times raw and defiant. Ebersole’s portrayal of the WASPish Arden is far more carefree. She seems to intuit that her business will have the advantage because she is not Jewish.

One of the more telling moments, beautifully acted by both stars, takes place prior to LuPone’s solo song “Now You Know.” Hiding her face away at a restaurant banquette, she overhears how her rival is denied membership in an exclusive women’s’ club because the club members consider her déclassé and nouveau riche. As soon as Ebersole’s character exits, LuPone’s sings stinging lyrics acknowledging her similar status: “You think you’ve made the grade, you think you’ve earned the win, but when you try to join the club guess who’s not getting in?”

The lighting design by Kenneth Posner and the scenic design by David Korins are both remarkable. Arden’s trademark shade of pink dominates the stage during her songs, while a subdued shade of lavender is prominent during those selections in which Rubinstein’s character is prominent. One notable exception is a huge production number (“Fire and Ice”) with red lighting in which upstart Charles Revson is seen hawking his products over the young TV medium that both Rubinstein and Arden had rejected. Costumes that span several decades are brilliantly executed by Catherine Zuber, while the all-important makeup designs were attentively rendered by Angelina Avallone.

In the end, the two aging cosmetic tycoons find that the world has passed them by. Wright’s final scene permits them an imagined meeting in which they are able to talk directly to one another. They have plotted against each other,  stolen each other’s significant male partners and never referred to the other in the process of founding businesses that would make billions. But they have neglected to change with the times, thus permitting other upstarts like Revson to capture the marketplace with cheaper products readily available in pharmacies and grocery stores unlike the costly studios favored by Rubinstein and Arden .

The pure enjoyment LuPone and Ebersole feel on stage is evident at the end of the performance as the actors’ faces light up with admiration for each other’s talent and the audience reacts wildly. That, it would seem, is the genuine cosmetics of Broadway theatre, which shines with colors and hues that can never be accurately delineated and defined. But it is in that glow of illuminated talent on the War Paint stage that true beauty can be found to last for a lifetime.

War Paint” continues its run at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street in New York City. Tickets are available through the official site. For more information click here.

 

 

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