By Sandi Durell
This is the story that dreams are made of. And so let us give thanks to two extraordinary performers with extraordinary presence and voices that literally blow you away in bringing this ferocious competition between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden to life. Isn’t that why we’re all here – to see and hear the powerful belting Patti LuPone, dripping in jewels as Helena Rubinstein, the egotistical Jewish Polish immigrant, and the silky flowing voiced Christine Ebersole, dripping in pink as Elizabeth Arden – she, too, an immigrant, but a country club Episcopalian from Toronto.
The two rival entrepeneurs never met in person but the Grey Gardens team of Doug Wright’s book, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, feature the passing ships in the night as two separate entities yet moving together simultaneously but apart in the same scenes to voice their own views on such songs as – “If I’d Been a Man,” “Face to Face.” It isn’t until the end of Act II that they actually duet on “Beauty in the World.” Meanwhile, even the thought of mentioning the other’s name is forbidden – Elizabeth calling Helena ‘that dreadful woman’ – Helena calling Arden ‘the other one.’
But never mind, they both had the instincts of vipers and it was an era made in money heaven, beginning in 1935, when only street women and ladies in the theatre used makeup. Arden and Rubinstein, however, understood the importance of the battle for beauty and how to appeal to women by telling them how to fix sagging skin, what to put on lips, eyes, cheeks and face to keep their men in line. Concoctions of crèmes, lotions and colorful lips became the rage as Rubinstein vs. Arden, each heading up their own powerful corporations (both not at all acceptable in social circles), outshone their male counterparts. Arden’s husband Lewis, also her sales director (John Dossett) is a ‘yes’ man whom she keeps at bay so he won’t steal her thunder; Rubinstein’s marketing man and more, Harry (Douglas Sills), is her weapon who keeps his own little secret. Wanting more, they soon switch places and eventually both get the boot.
Each of these super women possessed their own style and marketing images – Rubinstein using more scientific methods with hormones in her crème; Arden carrying forth the packaging aspects of pink and red.
Rubinstein, with all her wealth and art, faces bigotry as she attempts to buy a triplex on Park Avenue for cash, to be turned down by the co-op board, a story overheard by Arden as each lunches separately at the St. Regis, Arden listening and gloating from her own secluded table. Arden, a devoted lover and owner of racing horses, gets her own comeuppance from the old-money crowd when she is turned down for membership in a swanky private Waspy country club.
They eventually lose their dominance when each declines the opportunity to advertise on CBS television opening the door to Charles Revson getting his foot in as trends begin to change. A memorable production number “Fire and Ice” featuring Revson (Erik Liberman), his number one beauty girl Dorian Leigh (Steffanie Leigh) and the Mirror Girls, is notable.
The opening production number “Behind the Red Door” features a bevy of young pink clad beauties waiting breathlessly for their leader Arden to enter followed by a similar episode in “Back on Top” as Rubinstein enters via a gangplank swathed in fur.
The second main reason to see War Paint is for the visual effect of extraordinarily beautiful retro costumes by Catherine Zuber, and the hats . . . oh those hats with feathers, scarves – – just sensational, not to mention the eye-popping jewelry ever-changing on LuPone, all neatly wrapped up on David Korins’ fetching set, strikingly lit by Kenneth Posner.
LuPone fulfills every aspect of the bitter and driven Rubinstein albeit her accent can get in the way of distinguishing some of the dialogue but sounds better in song. She also has an overflowing share of laugh lines. Ebersole is chic glamour in pink with a more subdued bitchy quality that enables the likeability quotient to rise on her character, especially with her dry sense of humor. They are each given their 11 o’clock numbers – Ebersole in “Pink” – a color she doesn’t even really like; LuPone in “Forever Beautiful” comparing timeless art to the futility of stopping the aging process.
What’s compelling is the character driven plot giving insight into the lives of two unusual women who created empires at a time when it was unfashionable and unacceptable – – the chosen twosome are unparalleled in talent and star power. They are more than electrified under Michael Greif’s direction, with choreography by Christopher Gattelli.
Photos: Joan Marcus
War Paint – Nederlander Theatre, West 41 St. NYC – run time 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)