New York City Theater
They were the two biggest names in cosmetics: ruthless rivals, glamorous, gregarious, powerful and power-hungry. They were Helena Rubinstein (born Chaja Rubinstein in Poland) and Elizabeth Arden (née Florence Nightingale Graham, once a Canadian farm girl). Subjects of a complex, tasteful but disappointing new diva-driven musical (Patti LuPone!, Christine Ebersole!), the two immigrants pushed the world in new directions.
That they never actually met is both blessing (for their lifetime volatility) and bane (for the musical). Meeting in reality might have led to mayhem but the lack of meeting until near the end of the show deprives the audience of theatrical fireworks. We get, instead, a reconciliatory scene between LuPone’s Rubinstein and Ebersole’s Arden that sums up the struggles and triumphs of these formidable titans.
Doug Wright’s libretto, inspired by the biography “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead and the film “The Powder and the Glory,” proceeds in parallel lines. One woman sings “Step on Out” or “Better Yourself,” then the other one matches her. Not until the penultimate “Beauty in the World” is there unity and a fusing of their accomplishments as well as a stab at peace.
Accomplishments there were many The first women to run their own corporations, they wondered if they were enslaving or freeing women, making them beholden to phony standards or allowing them to cheat age and time. Up to then, make-up had been confined to floozies and actresses. Rubinstein and Arden made it respectable, giving women a modicum of independence in how they looked at the cost of dependence on artificiality.
In the musical, we get snippets of their love lives, their run-ins with the FDA because of their products’ “secret” ingredients, their cutthroat battles, their snubs, their insecurities, their plebian upbringings. All was not well personally but, boy, were they successful.
The show’s creators make sure the stars are equal, leading to our not rooting for either lady or for anyone else, to the work’s disadvantage. Actually, there are only four major characters: Helena and her gay assistant, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills); Elizabeth and her husband Tommy Lewis (John Dossett). Having the men switch loyalties is about the only real drama in the piece.
Much is suggested yet underdeveloped. We’re bombarded with possible themes. Take Helena’s secular Jewishness, vs., according to Woodhead’s book, Elizabeth’s anti-Semitism. World War II is given a glance. More developed is the rise of Charles Revson, who, cheapening the cosmetics business by centering products in drugstores instead of salons, also revolutionized it.
As women in corporate worlds run by men, Helena and Elizabeth were anomalies yet in the business mode, exploiting levels of generic one-upmanship with lines like “It is dangerous to wound the enemy; the blow must be fatal.” Both never could escape their backgrounds: Helena was denied a co-op because of her religion; Elizabeth was denied membership in a fancy club because she made her own living. (“For a woman to have money is one thing. But to earn it . . .”)
Michael Korie’s lyrics and Scott Frankel’s music are admirably character driven. In particular, “My American Moment,” “Pink,” “Forever Beautiful” and “Beauty in the World” enhance the story. The second act is much livelier than the first and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, especially her hats, are magnificent throughout.
Michael Greif’s direction and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography propel the evening. Stylishly, generously, they give equal weight to the women’s stories. Ebersole is a cold fish Arden who, with her pasted-on smile and aristocratic posture, lauds it over everyone. But the actress downplays the snobbishness that would deepen the portrayal and the steel that underpins Arden’s fearsome rule.
LuPone, with the more colorful role, is terrific. Her mumbled diction is intact but, when she delivers, she’s unbeatable. As actor as well as singer, she commands the stage and everybody in the theater, including the audience and, no doubt, the backstage crew. Dossett and Sills do what they can with one-dimensional parts.
“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” says Rubinstein. “War Paint” is neither ugly nor lazy. Yet, like beauty itself, it’s only skin deep.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 18, 2017