by Tony Phillips
Early on, when that iconic red door that has marked the gateway to Elizabeth Arden’s swank Fifth Avenue salon since 1910, rolls onto the stage, it’s clear we’re in good hands. This good-looking musical about looking good sounds even better, courtesy of Broadway stalwarts Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as Helena Rubenstein and Arden respectively.
If you’re asking yourself–“Helena Who-benstein?”–probably best to hang onto your $250 for a War Paint premium seat. But if LuPone and Ebersole—each with two Tony Awards –have you chomping at the bit, like the blend of Park Avenue ladies and boys from Hell’s Kitchen who made up a recent, post-opening audience, you’ll float out of this show on a pink cloud.
Book writer Doug Wright, who’s got his own Tony for 2004’s I Am My Own Wife, mines some delicious territory here. Namely, the gal-on-gal action drawn from those bickering hens of George Cukor’s golden age films like The Women to the into-the-pond catfights of 1980s primetime television gems like “Dynasty.”
The main problem is Wright is a bit hemmed in by the facts, drawing on both Lindy Woodhead’s eponymous 2004 book and Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s 2007 documentary The Powder & The Glory. It’s well documented that the two cosmetics titans never met. And Wright’s book, along with Michael Greif’s tight direction, teases a showdown for two hours before finally giving in and pairing the two for a closing duet: the reconciliatory downer “Beauty in the World.”
Still, it’s small complaint that these two divas don’t tackle one another physically as they seem content doing so vocally all evening. If Ebersole gets the eleven o’clock barn burner “Pink” (“the color of every woman’s childhood”) you can be sure a very Eastern European LuPone—the “little wandering Jew” in Ebersole’s garden–won’t be far behind with her own show-stopper, “Forever Beautiful.” It’s as if Greif is boxed into stacking these two side by side like so much cream-filled inventory as the calculus of the Broadway powerhouse won’t allow them to occupy the same space at the same time.
And what a space it is: David Korins’ minimal sets frame Ebersole with her signature pink bottles and LuPone with the full complement of Rubenstein’s mad, faux scientist laboratory. But if the décor is an exercise in restraint, Catherine Zuber’s costumes are anything but, and a forgone conclusion on Tony night. It’s almost as if LuPone is trying to practice Marilu Henner’s L.A. Story method of spinning into the mirror to remove the first accessory she sees, only to spin up some sort of electromagnetic vortex wherein her entire collection of jewelry attaches itself to various points of her tiny body. A few of LuPone’s costumes even seem to feature broaches accented by other broaches pinned atop them.
If it’s all sounding a little over the top, it is. But there’s also some deeper mining of social mores and subtext as these two mid-century titans go “sailing over a cliff.” In the closing number, Ebersole frets about whether they freed women or enslaved them and, indeed, the domineering pair find themselves so interchangeable that they are literally able to swap leading men—one of them gay, natch—halfway through the show.
This is a musical that begins with women gazing frantically into a mirror, worrying their appearance, but ends with two women mirroring each other. Sure, a lot of us would have preferred the slap fight, but theirs is a quickly changing America wherein both brands are nearly toppled by both the Second World War and the flashier, tackier Revlon founder Charles Revson. One can only imagine what these two would have made of Alicia Keys and today’s makeup-free movement. They are proof that the American Dream has much more in common with a recurring nightmare, but LuPone, it should be noted, goes to great pains to point out that only one of them is actually Canadian.
War Paint is at The Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41 Street, NYC. Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie, Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. The show opened April 6 for an open run. See www.warpaintmusical.com