|Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden in War Paint.|
It is a well documented problem that outside of Rose in Gypsy, there are few meaty musical theatre roles for women over the age of 40. The sensational new musical War Paint, about the lifelong rivalry between cosmetics giants Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, aims to fix that by creating not one but two gargantuan roles rife with possibilities for nuance. Creators Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, and Doug Wright have expertly crafted these roles around the enormous talents of stage royalty Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, resulting in a true must see musical event that is as thrillingly entertaining as it is intellectually stimulating. This transcendent piece of theatre deftly explores themes of power and beauty through the story of two real life titans who paved the way for women in the upper echelons of big business, all while providing both LuPone and Ebersole with some of the juiciest material of their careers.
War Paint begins in the mid-1930s, after Rubinstein and Arden have become two of the wealthiest women in the world through their determination and business acumen. The cosmetics companies that bear their founders' names have successfully moved makeup from the realm of prostitutes and dance hall girls into acceptable everyday use, but neither CEO is content to rest on her laurels. While Arden seeks to corner the market on high end luxury products with her signature pink packaging and spa-like full body treatments, Rubinstein promotes her products as scientifically superior formulas guaranteed to make her clients more beautiful. The show follows their professional and personal rivalry over the next 30 years, which sees more than a few scandals and market shifts while both women fight to be taken seriously even after their unprecedented success.
Doug Wright's book seamlessly merges with Frankel and Korie's score to create an endlessly fascinating study of two strong women who are underestimated at every turn. Equal time is spent on the women's personal lives (or lack thereof, as their success requires constant sacrifice) and their business dealings, exploring what it means to be a powerful woman in a society dominated by men. As War Paint clearly illustrates, this has long been an issue in America, but the show feels particularly timely given the increased attention paid to these inequalities over the past few years, to say nothing of the nation's current political climate. War Paint manages to be insightful without feeling preachy, also finding time to address how Rubinstein and Arden's male second-in-commands deal with the reversal of roles. The fact that the show manages to acknowledge the inherent contradiction in Rubinstein and Arden's accomplishments - they paved the way for women in business by creating an industry that thrives on women's sense of inadequacy about their appearance - proves to be a nice bow on the entire evening.
Anchoring this production are the two knockout star turns from LuPone and Ebersole, who play Rubinstein and Arden respectively. Both women are absolutely sensational from beginning to end, with the writing team creating two multilayered roles that expertly cater to the women's strengths. LuPone is a force of nature as the fiery immigrant Rubinstein, portraying the cosmetics giant with equal parts grit and tenderness while also mining every ounce of comedy from the character's many caustic one liners. Her first big number, "Back on Top," is everything you'd want from a LuPone song, a big, brassy, belty showcase that distills all of the actress' most distinctive skills down to an absolutely thrilling four minutes. And while LuPone's voice is perhaps unequaled in its sheer power, she also displays deep wells of tenderness and sorrow, breaking your heart with the more introspective "Now You Know" and especially her eleven o'clock number "Forever Beautiful."
Ebersole beautifully contrasts LuPone's ferocity with a more nuanced portrayal of Elizabeth Arden, with Frankel and Korie once again crafting a score that showcases the actress' mercurial voice with the same level of invention as Grey Gardens did. Ebersole's performance is more of a slow burn, her character's perfectly mannered exterior slowly fading away over the course of the evening as she lets the audience and those closest to her into her world. She is positively inspiring during "Better Yourself," where Arden (unsuccessfully) tries to take a young woman under her wing, and agonizingly poignant during her Act II showstopper "Pink," which finds Arden confronted with the possibility of being forced out of her company.
And while two great things are not always great together, the many numbers which showcase both LuPone and Ebersole are easily the highlights of the evening. "If I'd Been a Man" takes the fairly straightforward idea that Rubinstein and Arden's work struggles stem largely from their gender and puts two deeply affecting human faces on it. They thrillingly conclude the first act by singing "Face to Face," something of a misnomer as they share the stage but don't interact in a song that is nonetheless entrancing. And when the pair finally meet in person at an awards banquet near the end of the show, the ensuing scene and song are nothing short of magical.
The two stars are ably supported by the rest of the cast, particularly John Dossett as Arden's husband/vice president Tommy Lewis and Douglas Sills as Rubinstein's second-in-command Harry Fleming. Both make excellent scene partners for LuPone and Ebersole while also sharing fine chemistry on their own, although their second act duet "Dinosaurs" is the show's only tonal misstep (and a minor one at that). The deceptively small ensemble knows exactly when to pop and when to fade into the background while the stars do their thing, and the staging is kept moving at an exciting clip by director Michael Greif and choreographer Christopher Gattelli. Special mention must be made of Catherine Zuber's gorgeous, period-perfect costumes, which are works of art in and of themselves while also going a long way towards making the 11 person ensemble look at least twice as large thanks to creative doubling of roles.
If the preceding review has not yet convinced you, allow me to state in no uncertain terms that you must see this show. War Paint takes everything that was exciting about Frankel and Korie's Grey Gardens and ups the accessibility and entertainment factors without sacrificing any of the depth. Both LuPone and Ebersole give sensational performances that could net either woman a third Best Actress Tony, and the show furthers the incredibly important national conversation regarding women's struggles in the workplace. It is both highbrow and immensely appealing, and one of the highlights of what is shaping up to be a very strong season for new musicals.