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.
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.
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.
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.