Theater Review: Scattered Brush Strokes of Beauty in War Paint

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LuPone and Ebersole, in full makeup. Photo: Joan Marcus

The last half hour or so of War Paint, the beguiling but frustrating new musical about beauty legends Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, is just about everything you could want from a Broadway show. The two leads — Patti LuPone as Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Arden — each get a gorgeous, perfectly conceived solo: “Forever Beautiful” for LuPone and “Pink” for Ebersole. Then comes a rueful duet finale (“Beauty in the World”) to complete the arc of their double biography with some twin-engine vocalizing. This sequence is preceded by an equally fine one in which the empires we’ve seen them build over the decades start to crumble in the face of new trends in beauty and marketing: Arriviste Charles Revson introduces his blockbuster 1955 product line in a swell production number called “Fire and Ice.” (“You put the fire with the ice, what do you have?” scoffs LuPone in an outrageous Polish accent. “A puddle!”) In between, there’s a song for the men who symmetrically betrayed the two titans: Harry Fleming, Rubinstein’s business manager who defected to Arden, and Tommy Lewis, Arden’s wholesale manager — and husband — who defected to Rubinstein. Their swaggering duet, which Douglas Sills and John Dossett tear into like raptors, is an angry satire-cum-eulogy for the kind of women they served, and the kind of men who would serve them: It’s called “Dinosaurs.”

If five great numbers in a row can’t make a great musical, perhaps that satire-cum-elegy should be for musical theater itself. Have we progressed to the point that complex stories can no longer be squeezed into the format of traditional large-scale Broadway entertainment? Or is the problem only that this story can’t? Because for all the intelligence, sophistication, and sheer talent involved — LuPone and Ebersole are in top form — War Paint keeps falling between an older model of storytelling and a new one, never fully climbing its way out of the gap. The difficulty is built into the material’s DNA: The show was “inspired by” a book (also called War Paint) and a documentary (The Powder and the Glory) that both make hay of the astonishing chiaroscuro of the two women’s lives. Each was born poor: short, brunette Chaja Rubinstein in a Krakow slum; tall, blond Florence Nightingale Graham on a hardscrabble Ontario farm. Each was an immigrant, and each reimagined her résumé (Galician princess; country-club WASP) to lend cachet to beauty products that were formerly the exclusive province of prostitutes and actresses. Each became immensely wealthy as the chief executive of a company bearing her own name — a surpassing rarity for women of that era. And even aside from their man troubles, they both endured backlashes for breaking new ground, often in the form of rejection from the social class (and clubs and co-ops) they had worked so hard and long to join.

The surprise and tension of these parallels and symmetries, combined with the implacable enmity between the women, sounds like a great organizing principle. And perhaps it is, for a work of journalism. But for a musical, the fact that the actual women never met, and had complete lives well beyond the parts that were parallel, poses problem after problem. The most obvious is: How do you structure the story so that the leads don’t appear to be in separate shows? Musicals have had twin female protagonists before: Wicked and Chicago come to mind. But in each of those shows the two leads were engaged in the same drama at the same time, and one was dominant. Dominance was not a possibility in War Paint, given the casting, and the authors — the playwright Doug Wright and the songwriting team of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie — seem to have used a stopwatch to make sure they remained in compliance. (LuPone and Ebersole each have three solo songs; they sing together in eight others.) As a result the structure quickly becomes a bit monotonous, with alternating scenes of each woman facing variations on the same problem as the other. Sometimes the scenes interpenetrate or collide, but even these fall into a pattern, as when Arden hides in her booth at the St. Regis as Rubinstein arrives to lunch in her adjoining one, and later, vice versa. These near misses seem gimmicky but at least leave you wanting more, which is part of what makes the ending, when the women finally (if fictionally) meet, so delicious. But it takes two hours to get them there.

Basically telling two life stories side by side, War Paint spends a lot of time that might be put to better use, in a different show, by delving deeper into the secondary characters or by exploring more seriously the social and political environment in which the women operated. As it is, Wright must fit complicated multiyear developments like the role of cosmetics in World War II into the very narrow confines of short scenes that take place at just one moment in time. This reaches an almost absurd, pre–Golden Age level of condensation as the show fishes around for a crisis to bring down the first-act curtain and can only come up with the 1938 congressional investigation into the cosmetics industry’s mystery ingredients. Rubinstein accuses Arden of using “the same schmutz” in her Ardena skin tonic as in her grooming lotion for horses; Arden accuses Rubinstein of hiding the fact that her flagship Valaze cream is made from rendered lamb fat. A senator upbraids them each in one sentence and instantaneously passes some truth-in-labeling laws. What took five years to play out in Washington takes just a couple of minutes at the Nederlander; this is some rendered lamb fat in itself.

But at least LuPone and Ebersole each get a fabulous new Catherine Zuber outfit for the scene, and another fine number by Frankel and Korie. Indeed, the astonishing costumes and the score filled with real theater songs are as good as Broadway gets. Frankel finds hundreds of inventive ways to use period pastiche, in this case ranging from operetta giddiness to Bernstein angst, to express the vitality of the women’s ambition and explore the undercurrents of their despair. Naturally, he writes to the gifts of his leading ladies, giving LuPone plenty of red meat and sharp angles and Ebersole a series of long-line arias that keep shifting keys as if unable to find a place to rest. The singing that results is almost too rich to be believed. And what a pleasure it is to be hit by the fusillade of classic (and accurate) Broadway rhyming with which Korie loads his lyrics. These are not just the fun, uptempo kind but the kind that bite with insight. In a sad, contemplative duet called “If I’d Been a Man,” he nails the eternal dilemma of the businesswoman in a nifty couplet: “A man can be an absent parent. / Stray the way a woman daren’t.” War Paint is studded with such irreducible observations.

Two singing actresses at the peak of their powers, a fascinating premise, knockout costumes, and a score (beautifully orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin) that is destined to make a great cast album: So why is the show as a whole less than great? Why, onstage, despite a perfectly smooth staging from Michael Greif, should War Paint feel so effortful, like getting through an overheavy meal? You may feel, as I’ve heard some saying, that it’s too sophisticated for its own good. As for me, I’m no chemist, but I suspect the lamb fat.

War Paint is at the Nederlander Theatre.

Theater: Scattered Brush Strokes of Beauty in War Paint