Powerhouse performances propel Goodman's world premiere 'War Paint'

  • Patti LuPone stars as cosmetics titan Helena Rubinstein in Goodman Theatre's world premiere of "War Paint" by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, with book by Doug Wright.

    Patti LuPone stars as cosmetics titan Helena Rubinstein in Goodman Theatre's world premiere of "War Paint" by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, with book by Doug Wright. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Christine Ebersole stars as Elizabeth Arden, whose legendary rivalry with fellow cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein is chronicled in the new musical "War Paint," running through Aug. 21 at Goodman Theatre.

    Christine Ebersole stars as Elizabeth Arden, whose legendary rivalry with fellow cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein is chronicled in the new musical "War Paint," running through Aug. 21 at Goodman Theatre. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and her husband and right-hand man, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), discuss how to compete with rival cosmetics maven Helena Rubinstein in "War Paint," the new musical in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre.

    Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and her husband and right-hand man, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), discuss how to compete with rival cosmetics maven Helena Rubinstein in "War Paint," the new musical in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and her advertising ace Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) move in on a market dominated by Rubinstein's cosmetic company rival Elizabeth Arden in Goodman Theatre's world premiere of the musical "War Paint."

    Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and her advertising ace Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) move in on a market dominated by Rubinstein's cosmetic company rival Elizabeth Arden in Goodman Theatre's world premiere of the musical "War Paint." Courtesy of Joan Marcus

 
 
Updated 7/29/2016 11:03 AM

Late in the second act of "War Paint," the luxe new musical that opened Monday at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, a young woman thanks beauty magnates Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden for "what you've done to women."

"For women," she says, amending her praise and prompting the moguls to muse over whether their efforts freed women or enslaved them.

 

That paradox -- of cosmetics empowering women by making them feel more confidant, and at the same time discouraging them by promoting impossible beauty standards that perpetuate their objectification -- underpins this star-powered show about the women behind the brand names.

Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole play longtime rivals Rubinstein and Arden. Their presence likely assures Michael Greif's fluid, elegantly directed production a Broadway berth.

But the musical doesn't depend solely on its leading ladies, formidable singing-actresses in peak form. (Merriam-Webster should include a photo of LuPone alongside its definition of "powerhouse.") "War Paint," which reunites the creative team responsible for "Grey Gardens," is a very good show. Scott Frankel's sophisticated score has a marvelous sense of swing and old-fashioned Broadway panache. Michael Korie's lyrics are witty and eloquent, and Doug Wright's droll, refined book includes some delicious malapropisms courtesy of Polish émigré Rubinstein.

Taking its title and inspiration from Lindy Woodhead's book and the documentary "The Powder and the Glory" by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman, "War Paint" chronicles the entwined tales of these twin titans of the beauty biz.

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Wright's fictionalized account emphasizes the similarities of these humbly born women: Rubinstein (LuPone) from Krakow, Poland, and Arden (Ebersole) from Toronto, Canada. Each changed her name, embellished her background and built her empire at a time when few women worked outside the home and even fewer worked in the boardroom. Catering to women's hopes to be desirable and playing upon their fears of getting old, Rubinstein and Arden sold "Hope in a Jar." It made them rich but didn't insulate Rubinstein from anti-Semitism or Arden from class prejudice. And their success cost them personally. Estranged from her husband and sons, Rubinstein relied on her confidante and marketing manager Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills). Arden, who chose career over family, worked alongside her sales manager husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), until their marriage soured and he went to work for Rubinstein.

With her soft blonde waves and tailored suits, Ebersole's Arden is the picture of the upper-crust American woman, while LuPone's fiery Rubinstein, with her sleek chignon, flamboyant jewelry and accent, epitomizes the European exotic.

We first meet them during the late 1930s, as their competition turns cutthroat (at one point they each filed complaints about the other with the Food and Drug Administration). We watch them struggle during World War II and after, when entrepreneurs like Charles Revson (a lean, savvy Erik Liberman) threaten their supremacy with more affordable products and flashy marketing campaigns.

Their parallel stories unfold simultaneously with scenes shifting like clockwork on David Korins' sophisticated, stylishly minimal set. For every Rubinstein scene, there's an answering Arden scene. As star vehicles go, "War Paint" is pretty equitable, right down to the back-to-back 11 o'clock showstoppers. Unfortunately, the format keeps the main characters -- two shades of blush in the same compact -- apart for much of the show. Their conflict is with each other, yet we don't see them interact until the end.

The show, gorgeously costumed by Catherine Zuber, opens as a sung-through musical, with the first few numbers setting a dizzying pace. But the show needs some trimming. The duets between Dossett and Sills -- a talented pair of pros -- feel like filler. It's good filler, but it's filler nonetheless. The titular tune, a rather inauthentic wartime anthem that opened the second act, left me cold.

Greif's cast, most of whom boast Broadway bona fides, is first-rate. As is music director/conductor Lawrence Yurman's 13-piece orchestra. But "War Paint" belongs to Ebersole and LuPone, brilliant actresses whose magnificent voices shake the rafters. Each stops the show: Ebersole does it with the grand, emotionally wrenching "Pink," in which Arden reflects on the color that represents her brand and the family she will never have. Moments later, LuPone stops it again with the striking "Forever Beautiful," a modern, angular ballad in which an unflinchingly self-aware Rubinstein recognizes that art, not artifice, endures.

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