By: Isa Goldberg
That the women who portray Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden in Doug Wright’s new musical, War Paint on Broadway, are titans in their own right, is the obvious understatement. Patti LuPone, as the vampire-like Jewish immigrant (Rubenstein), and Christine Ebersole, as the Episcopalian socialite (Arden), each reveal the vulnerability of these two over achievers, who created an industry. Had their names been Henry Ford, they indeed would be remembered in just that way. In their case, however, it takes Wright to rediscover them.
Writing about women as “outliers” is a recurring theme for him. His award-winning Gray Gardens, which he wrote, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, who are also his collaborators here, follows the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy’s cousins, Little Edie and Big Edie Bouvier Beale (played by Christine Ebersole who won the Tony Award for her role). It follows the two women from their heyday as socialites to their pitiful estrangement. And in his one-man play, I Am My Own Wife, Wright explores the life of an eccentric German transvestite, who hid from the Nazis, in plain sight, as a woman.
Here, LuPone’s and Ebersole’s first act duet says it all quite simply, and sadly. “I sleep alone/If I’d been a man, I’d make the rules,” LuPone’s Rubenstein sings. When rejected from purchasing an apartment in a prestigious Manhattan apartment building, however, she eventually buys the building. And when someone tells her “war is a mind game,” she throws it off with a swift come back. “Tell that to Joan of Arc.” Even the title turns the world of specifically feminine products, cosmetics, into a masculine image.
In Ebersole’s most outstanding number “Pink,” about the Arden brand signature, the entrepreneur reflects on that which was both her success and her nemesis. “Pink – the only shred of me they want,” Ebersole’s Arden decries. While filled with bathos, it’s a comic gem, in which the stereotypical color gets what it deserves.
LuPone’s Rubenstein, however, is more blatantly emasculating. When Arden divorces her husband and business partner, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), he runs to Rubenstein to share Arden’s business secrets and secure his own future. Confiding to her designer dog, she laments, “You know how I took you to the Veterinarian and he took out your testicles? She did the same to him.” Indeed, both women left their significant others and business partners, in the wings.
Following the upward rise of their businesses in the ‘30s is the focus of Act I. The second act fast-forwards through history, starting with World War II, and their support of the war effort, leading into the decline of their businesses in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Unable to keep up with the times – the advent of television, Madison Avenue, and mass production, Rubenstein and Arden became the dinosaurs, “Epidermis Rex,” of an ever-expanding market.
While the book unearths their lives, what stands out here is the extraordinary singing. LuPone, balancing classical gusto with characteristic bravura, and Ebersole, sweetly and openly alive in show stopping musical numbers, are legendary. And while the men in their lives were their lesser halves, John Dossett and Doug Sills (Harry Fleming) are in fine form here, as well.
Catherine Zuber’s costumes, with LuPone weighted down by enormous necklaces, and Ebersole, in Arden’s signature color – add to the parade. David Korins scenic design serves as a mirror to their large egos. Fortunately, director Michael Greif recognizes what we’ve come to see, and delivers it joyfully.
War Paint ***1/2
208 West 41 Street
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Photos: Joan Marcus