Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole's War Paint: EW stage review
The claws are out in War Paint — and boy, are they perfectly lacquered. This new Michael Greif-directed musical stars Tony dynamos Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as self-made beauty moguls Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, respectively. The two were ruthless rivals throughout their 50-plus-year career — Arden the blonde, silky, cotton candy–pink counterpoint to Rubenstein’s exotic, art-deco-clad Pole. Playing this pair, Ebersole and LuPone are nothing short of flawless.
With a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie (all of whom, including Ebersole, worked alongside Greif on Grey Gardens), the musical tells the gripping story of Rubinstein and Arden’s careers, warts and all. (The musical is inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s book War Paint, as well as the documentary film The Powder and the Glory.) Arden and Rubinstein were more alike than not and faced similar obstacles as female entrepreneurs with endless drive in a man’s world — fighting to be the best, to be heard, loved, and to stay relevant. But it was their desire to out-do one another that fueled their ambition — they stole each other’s right hand man (in news worthy of a tabloid headline, that meant Rubinstein got Arden’s husband), turned each other in to the FDA, and wouldn’t even refer to one another by name. Add a heaping pile of beauty, glamour and lush costumes to the mix, and you have yourself a juicy — albeit highly elegant — drama.
Because of their impenetrable rivalry, every scene save for the finale involves either LuPone or Ebersole commanding center stage. At times, they share the space and sing the same lyrics, and it’s a true treat for the audience when the stars’ velvet voices harmonize. The music is strong but not particularly memorable — it’s hard to say what the “Waving Through A Window” (Dear Evan Hansen’s catchy standout song) might be for War Paint. But the lyrics are impactful, particularly the LuPone-Ebersole ballad “If I’d Been A Man,” which, incidentally, is sure to hit close to home for Hillary supporters.
Over the course of their storied careers Ebersole and LuPone have never shared a stage until now and it’s a sight to behold. They command and captivate, portraying these two complicated enemies and equals to such a level that it’s no wonder their male counterparts — John Dossett (Pippin) and Douglass Still (Living on Love) — fade into the background a bit. But perhaps that’s the point — no one could rival Rubinstein or Arden except the other, just as no one can rival Ebersole or LuPone but the other.
Spanning 1934 to 1964, the costumes by designer Catherine Zuber (The King and I) stick the landing — a lineup of Arden’s red door “angels” wrap themselves up in red coats before a night on the town, each one slightly varied from the other, and the fascinators are outrageous enough to make Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie blush. David Korins’ (Hamilton) set includes floor-to-ceiling creams and jars that cleverly turn into a bar’s liquor bottles with the flip of a light switch.
While Act 2 slows a tad — there are one or two campy bits that feel extraneous, though that kind of excess fat is lean compared to many other musicals — the show is overall well-paced, due in part to the quippy one-liners that could easily be on the packaging of a compact. (See: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” says Rubinstein.)
One of the best scenes is the finale: an invention of the authors, in which Rubinstein and Arden finally meet for the first time ever while in a green room before a speaking engagement. Years have passed — both women walk a bit slower; Arden carries a cane — and after huffs and puffs, in their own way, the moguls come to an understanding. They compare lipstick application tips, admit to — gasp! — admiring each other’s products, and finally sing in unison, questioning whether they helped to free or enslave women.
War Paint isn’t perfect, but it’s a thing of beauty for sure. A-