You don’t have to go in search of a magnifying glass to discern the active ingredients in the new musical “War Paint,” at the Nederlander Theatre, a dual biography of the dueling cosmetics divas Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The magic elixirs are quite plainly the two veteran Broadway stars above the title, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, giving performances of such resplendent force, wit and vivacity that the evening gleams like a freshly applied coat of nail polish catching the light.
As with many a high-end beauty product, stylish packaging has much to do with the musical’s appeal. LuPone and Ebersole bring their natural magnetism, of course, but it is enhanced by a sumptuous production directed by Michael Greif. The stars are swathed in costumes by Catherine Zuber that provide a show in themselves: LuPone’s Rubinstein all but shellacked in shiny baubles, Ebersole’s Arden in trimly chic suits, often in Arden’s signature color, pink. (The production features enough smart hats to supply a dozen revivals of “The Women.”) The sets, by David Korins, featuring a glowing backdrop of smoked-glass jars and bottles, are likewise first-class, sweeping us between the sleek offices, homes and salons of the two women as they try to top one another in the search for the newest of the new in the eternal-youth business.
And “War Paint” comes from the same talented creative team behind “Grey Gardens”: Greif, book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. Their work here is accomplished, even impeccable. Frankel proves himself a crackerjack adept at silky period pastiche, in songs that evoke the changing popular styles of the 1930s into the 1950s; Korie’s well-wrought lyrics ripple with clever rhymes (who knew so much mileage could be had from cascading jokes about mascara and blush and concealer?); and Wright supplies his own tartly acidic view of the hate-hate relationship between the two reigning queens of the makeup table.
But all this glossy gift-with-purchase wrapping cannot hide a nagging flaw in the show’s conception: the central narrative is largely undramatic, at times even superficial. True, the story of these women — both from humble beginnings, both at the top of their chosen field, battling challenges financial and personal — has contemporary relevance. When Arden is asked by her husband and employee, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), to be given more responsibility, Arden responds that if she did, others would assume it was he who was responsible for her success: “You’re the one in trousers and I’m the one wearing the skirt.”
Both were pioneers in heading big businesses at a time when few women had such power and influence; both held a tenacious grip on their empires; both compartmentalized their personal lives, which were often a shambles. The musical covers all this territory efficiently — at times, repeatedly, with songs that, on occasion, allow the two to commiserate in fantasy, even though in real life they never met. (They revisit the theme of the hardships strong businesswomen face in the duet “If I’d Been a Man.”)
But neither in the show, nor for that matter in the exhaustive, almost mesmerizingly dull book by Lindy Woodhead on which it was (in part) based, does either come across as a woman with a rich interior life or a nuanced personality. All the gloss cannot mask a monotony that sets in when we realize that the story unfolding will never acquire the emotional depth that can turn an enjoyable musical into a memorable, even transporting one. Too much of the show, particularly in the slacker second act, develops in a then-this-happened manner, an easy trap for bio-musicals to fall into.
We meet the women mid-career, with Arden overseeing a humming business led by her Red Door salons, and Rubinstein returning to New York from Europe, having recently reacquired control of her company. Their rivalry soon blossoms again into full flower, before a male rival, Charles Revson (Erik Liberman), of Revlon fame, challenges their dominance.
Each has a trusted aide-de-camp: Arden’s is her husband Tommy, Rubinstein’s a loyal gay man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), who heads up her sales division but also coddles and soothes her as needed. (Rubinstein’s unhappy first marriage is vaguely alluded to, but both her second, and Arden’s, are airbrushed out of the picture.)
The primary dramatic development — essentially the only one — is the sudden switch of allegiances of both men. Tommy and Harry, each tired of kowtowing to their domineering bosses, exchange places, becoming employees of the women they once worked to vanquish. (This has some basis in truth.) Dossett and Sills are both fine actors, but there is little they can do to disguise the mostly functional nature of their characters.
Ebersole’s is the blander part — her big solo number is a somewhat overblown hymn to the color pink, which she comes to see as her sole legacy — but she imbues Arden with a brisk, brittle edge, and her spun-sugar delivery of Arden’s digs at her rival, and digs at the men in her life, are delicious. And, of course, Ebersole’s voice — a creamy lyric soprano that can switch instantly into a sturdy belt — is perfectly tailored to a character who hides her steely ambition beneath a studiously elegant exterior.
LuPone has the more robust role — and she is positively electric, singing at the top of her considerable form. Born in poverty in Poland, Rubinstein buried her insecurities underneath her shimmering jewels and other expensive acquisitions. LuPone makes an ample meal of Rubinstein’s trudging, dogged spirit and the grim humor with which she fought through adversity. She also has the better songs, including a powerful ballad called “Now You Know,” in which Rubinstein, who has faced anti-semitism (and anti-woman sentiment) throughout her career, overhears Arden being rejected for a club because she has been so gauche as to work for her money, instead of marry or inherit it. It’s the rare emotionally resonant song in the musical.
Still, even taking the blemishes into account, it’s tempting to say, so what? Just hearing the heaps of hilarious scorn that LuPone brings to the single word “gingham” is almost worth the hefty price of admission. When you have the opportunity to watch actors of this caliber — alike in their distinctive, nicely contrasted voices, alike in their assured command of the stage — it’s easy to overlook many a superficial flaw, sit back and simply bask.
While the characters they are portraying with such vigor made their careers by convincing women they could buy back the years past in a jar or a bottle or a compact, Ebersole and LuPone would seem to need no such ministrations. On a Broadway stage, with a zinger to deliver and a song to put across, they and their formidable talents are absolutely ageless. █
“War Paint” opened at the Nederlander Theatre on April 6, 2017.
Produced by David Stone, Marc Platt, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Marcia Goldberg, Universal Stage Productions, Independent Presenters Network and Goodman Theatre
Book by Doug Wright; Music by Scott Frankel; Lyrics by Michael Korie; Inspired by ‘War Paint’ by Lindy Woodhead; Inspired by ‘The Powder & the Glory’ by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman; Music orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin; Musical Director: Lawrence Yurman
Directed by Michael Greif; Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli; Scenic Design by David Korins; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Brian Ronan; Wig Design by David Brian Brown; Makeup Design by Angelina Avallone; General Manager: 321 Theatrical Management; Company Manager: Tracy Geltman; Production Manager: Juniper Street Productions; Production Stage Manager: Tripp Phillips; Stage Manager: Jason Hindelang