The fierce rivalry between cosmetic titans Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden during the post-World War II era seems like an unlikely subject for a big Broadway musical. But War Paint, with two certified stars in the leads—Patti Lupone (Ms. Rubenstein) and Christine Ebersole (Ms. Arden)—and the same creative team behind the Tony Award winning Grey Gardens, proves to be an engaging, captivating, and classy production.
The show examines the competition between the two women who ruled corporate boardrooms when very few women were even in the upper echelons of the business world. The musical also looks at their individual empires and the ups and downs of both their businesses and personal lives. Librettist Doug Wright has fashioned a coherent narrative that, while not perfect, manages to include a good deal of information in a dramatic and entertaining manner. He also succeeds in nimbly touching on a number of notable topics as sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism without appearing so obvious or deliberate. By covering such a significant amount of historical terrain, character development has been somewhat compromised, more so with the men in the story then the two female protagonists, but not to the detriment of the overall production.
The high voltage women in the cast—Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole—are worth the price of admission. Both are seasoned musical theater veterans that are able to embody the heart and soul of their characters. They are iron-willed, classy, sophisticated, but also vulnerable and alone. Ms. Lupone, who’s Russian émigré accent sometimes gets the best of her, nonetheless is superb as Helena Rubenstein. Her performance is bold, defiant, and self-assured. Throughout the show, she delivers a number of very funny, sharp-witted bon mots. Ms. Ebersole, as Elizabeth Arden, presents a less hyperbolic portrayal. She is well-poised and assured in her demeanor and possesses a razor-like focus on her goals, no matter what the sacrifices and slights, both personal and business. Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming) and John Dossett (Tommy Lewis), the two men in Arden and Rubenstein’s lives who serve as their creative directors, publicists and confidantes, give well-honed performances within the limitations of their roles. The primary focus is on the female leads and their story, which doesn’t allow the necessary time for expanding and refining the Fleming and Lewis characters.
Director Michael Greif once again succeeds in birthing a musical with two strong, independent-minded female leads just as he accomplished with Grey Gardens. He has skillfully worked out a stage management schema for Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole to shine individually and in tandem. He deftly guides the production through its pace to create a series of tightly woven scenes that together form a persuasively structured, unified whole as opposed to a series of strung-together vignettes. Mr. Greif also manages to successfully weave through the show feelings of sadness, humor, triumph and defeat.
The score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie afford each star a chance to, literally, shine in the spotlight as well as together. The songs are effective in providing shading and nuance to the characters and moving the plot along its many twists and turns. While none of the numbers will be remembered once leaving the theater they are engaging, finely written compositions well-suited within the confines of the show.
David Korins’ scenic design, along with Kenneth Posner’s Lighting Design, has fittingly captured the essence of the two corporate cultures and the world the women inhabit. They bring a stylish and polished look to the production. The costumes by Catherine Zuber are elegant, chic, and smart.
War Paint, a well-crafted musical with two bona fide stars delivering tour de force performances.