Chicago Theater Review: WAR PAINT (World Premiere Musical at the Goodman)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 21, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

A FAR FROM COSMETIC MUSICAL MAKEOVER

In the late James Kirkwood’s Legends!, two feuding divas–played on a 1986 national tour by theatrical goddesses Carol Channing and Mary Martin–reach a reconciliation before death divides them forever. In War Paint, a vehicular musical trying out at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, the rags-to-riches rivals are historical personages: Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, cosmetic moguls who are not incidentally female and, even less accidentally, played by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole.

Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein) in War Paint, a world premiere musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Photo by Joan Marcus

Their half-century squabble, fueled by polar temperaments, marketing competition, even the men they stole from each other, yields a creamy, catty and cautionary tale. It’s the edifying saga of false Fifth Avenue feminism undermining sisterly solidarity, of “beauty wars” from the Depression through the Eisenhower Era, and of the war on aging that we all must lose. A backdrop of illuminated bottles suggests an amassed artistic armament of weapons for beauty. Vanity tables aside, here the fear of “losing face” takes on a dark new meaning. Were American women freed up or held back by Arden and Rubinstein’s literally superficial veneration of skin and smiles?

An enterprise by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music), and Michael Korie (lyrics), creators of Grey Gardens, this potential Broadway blockbuster is inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s book War Paint and Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s documentary with the equally wry title The Powder and the Glory. Incandescently portraying the warring women are La LuPone, as the Polish-Jewish impresaria Rubinstein, and Madame Ebersole, playing whitebread, Canadian-born Arden.

Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden) and John Dossett (Tommy Lewis) in War Paint, a world premiere musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Photo by Joan Marcus

The empresses of industry only meet at the end, after 150 minutes have compared and contrasted their tell-tale triumphs and hubristic blunders. By then, as palpable as the plot. the stars’ artistic divergences–LuPone’s concentrated charisma and Ebersole’s glamorous grace—almost outweigh this clash of the titans. Star power meets girl power; what could possibly go wrong? Rightly, director Michael Greif is smart enough to stay out of the limelight of a two-woman constellation.

There’s red meat on the bare bones of Wright’s depiction of unlikely “sisters in suffering” whose soul goal was to put “hope in a jar.” Divided and conquered by a fickle world where appearances are everything, our driven dynamos must package themselves as much as Arden’s pretty pink boxes and Rubinstein’s pseudo-scientific lotions and potions. From a recovering 1937 to the Mad Men world of 1964, in locales as varied as the Red Door Salon, the St. Regis Hotel King Kole Bar, the Cotton Club, or Rubinstein’s Park Avenue triplex (all elegantly evoked by David Korins), we watch two queens of beauty repeatedly and frustratingly fail to grasp their common cause.

Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein) and Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming) in War Paint, a world premiere musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Photo by Joan Marcus

Their epic quarrel becomes a force of nature. Arden despises her competitor’s emphasis on laboratories instead of the pink “mystique” she sells like snake oil. (As the FDA discovered when the ladies ratted each other out, their creams and poultices contained pollutants and poisons, embalming more than embellishing their purchasers.) Rubinstein accuses Arden of testing her products on her beloved race horses. Arden loathes her nemesis as lipstick on a pig, a mere technician and an uppity impostor.

Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein) sings “Forever Beautiful” in War Paint, a world premiere musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Photo by Joan MarcusUnwittingly, their fates dovetail: Both must contend with Revlon founder Charles Revson (Erik Liberman) and his down-market commodification of the ointment culture. Each is snubbed and blackballed by their fellow females—Rubinstein discredited as a Jew applying for a tony uptown WASP residence (which she later buys as revenge), Arden as “nouveau riche” compared to dowager “ladies who lunch” whose wealth was accidental, not achieved.

The most wrenching reversals concern the men in their lives: Arden manages to acquire Rubinstein’s right-hand homosexual—her marketing guru Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills)–while Rubinstein wins over (or steals away) Arden’s husband and chief marketer Tommy Lewis (John Dossett). Alas, chauvinists, gay or straight, inevitably feel disrespected when their superiors aren’t their gender. But, however upstaged by larger-than-life consorts, the men find mutual misery in the duet “Dinosaurs,” ruefully acknowledging that they’re not even second fiddles in a very large string section.

Christine Ebersole in War Paint, a world premiere musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Photo by Joan Marcus

War Paint details a catalogue of self-defeating struggles, outsized egos, and signature symbols (Arden’s fuschia-painted diamonds and Rubinstein’s rhinestone-ridden presents). The show works equally well as an unspooling period piece: Frankel’s pastiche-laden score evolves melodically from anti-Depression chic (“Behind the Red Door”) to opportunistic patriotism on the homefront (the title number) to 50s’ vulgarity (“Fire and Ice”). Two 11 o’clock numbers suit the headliners’ individualized magic: Ebersole endures a conscience crisis in “Pink,” a matronly mad scene that–as a nod to Gypsy–can pass for “Elizabeth’s Turn.” After Arden embraces, then rejects her favorite color, LuPone likewise agonizes over a gallery of her portraits, sadly the sole way a woman can be “Forever Beautiful.”

Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden) sings “Pink” in War Paint, a world premiere musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Photo by Joan Marcus

Unfortunately, at times War Paint, which is not without its own packaging, goes no deeper than the title. Ebersole and LuPone’s first-act finale “Face to Face,” for example, editorializes on the poor little rich dames’ parallel plights. Happily, the vast vulnerability and awesome actuality that these beautiful belters evoke rescues the musical from its static situations. Their last scene/first meeting begins as cuttingly as Gwendolen and Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest but ends as tenderly as Elphaba and Glinda in Wicked. No femme banales, our dynamic duo make their vehicle a blast from the past and a thing of beauty.

photos by Joan Marcus

War Paint
Goodman Theatre
Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on August 21, 2016
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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