Ironically, for a musical about two great titans of the cosmetics industry, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, War Paint is rarely more than skin deep. Doug Wright’s book delivers surprisingly superficial portraits of these two fierce rivals (both immigrants who reshaped their own images along with America’s women) and rather on-the-surface answers to one of the questions posed by songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie about how much further the two could’ve gone had they been men. For all the bright lights of David Korins’ clever set, the show ultimately isn’t all that enlightening.
And yet, much like how Arden’s so-so skin care became a must-buy item because of its pretty porcelain jars and exquisite box, War Paint is redeemed by its packaging, specifically the powerhouse team of Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Even as they sing about makeup – which isn’t much different than if they were actually singing the phonebook – audiences will be mesmerized by these great stars.
LuPone is particularly triumphant as Rubinstein, in part because the creators make her a bit more three-dimensional than Arden. A less-than-beautiful Jewish immigrant from Poland with both a mind for science and business, Rubinstein abandoned her family to conquer America, still encountering roadblocks along the way. (At one point, she appears to be banned from buying a Park Avenue apartment due to an anti-Semitic co-op board). LuPone occasionally puts her European accent on a tad too thickly, but that’s my only quibble.
Her Helena is part Eva Peron, part Mama Rose – a woman determined to survive at all costs, not unaware of the price she’s paying for success. Sadly, she doesn’t get her much-deserved solos until Act Two, but both “Now You Know” (sung indirectly to Arden, who has been turned down for membership at the Mayfair Club for being nouveau riche) and the remarkable “Forever Beautiful” take full advantage of LuPone’s gifts as our finest singing actress. Wright also makes stunning use of LuPone’s caustic comic delivery, and no matter how Rubinstein is decked out in designer fashion and sparkling jewelry (the extraordinary costumes are by Catherine Zuber), nothing can fully disguise the girl from the shtetl.
Ebersole simply has less to work with. The creators fixate on the notion of Arden as the Ontario farm girl who recreates herself as a society doyenne, but is never fully accepted by her own class. Still, she makes the most of everything she’s given and is alternatively fierce, moving and deeply vulnerable. And her late-in-show aria “Pink” (sung as she’s forced to step down from the company she created) is a magnificent “cri di coeur” that will go down as one of this season’s finest theatrical moments.
If I haven’t mentioned the men, it’s because only a few are onstage, and they function more as plot devices than flesh-and-blood characters. Yes, the invaluable Douglas Sills and John Dossett give their all as, respectively, Harry Fleming (a gay marketing wizard who leaves Helena to work for Elizabeth) and Tommy Louis (Arden’s husband and fellow marketing genius who ends up at Helena’s professional side after Arden throws him out). But they’re pretty stock types, and their two duets, “Step On Out” and “Dinosaurs,” might better have been left in Frankel and Korie’s trunk.
The only other man of note, given even shorter and more schticky shrift, is Charles Revson (Erik Liberman), the two-bit salesman who would create Revlon and eventually buy both women’s companies. Still, Revson and the famed model Dorian Leigh (effectively impersonated by Steffanie Leigh) do provide the fodder for the show’s most razzmatazz number, “Fire and Ice,” one of the rare times director Michael Greif makes use of Christopher Gattelli’s copious choreographic gifts.
It has to be noted that while the two women never met in real life, the creators give us a fictional face-to-face “reconciliation” when both get honored late in life by a women’s group. While pure fiction, this scene (and its accompanying song, “Beauty in the World”) crackles in a way that we realize we’ve been missing for the past two and a half hours. Okay, so these archenemies in the cosmetic wars may never have really talked directly to each other, but War Paint might be more satisfying had the creators realized that in musicals, like in war, desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.