NEW YORK — The weapons of choice in “War Paint,” the engrossing, new world-of-marketing musical, are mascara wands rather than hatchets — although it’s also apparent in the rich portraiture here that if the show’s cosmetics visionaries, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, had ever really met, you would need to hide the knives.
Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole play Rubinstein and Arden in the show, which had its official opening Thursday night at the Nederlander Theatre, and two Broadway stars more thrillingly suited to embodying this historic rivalry would be hard to come up with. LuPone’s earthy volatility as Rubinstein seems to emanate from a source in natural opposition to Ebersole’s serene dismissiveness, playing Arden. So their battle across the decades of the 20th century at American beauty counters — what you might call their hand-cream-to-hand-cream combat — sizes up comfortably as one of epic proportion.
Fortunately, too, the creators of the musical — songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, book writer Doug Wright and director Michael Greif, all of fame — have scaled the show to the dimensions of their cash-register-ringing, above-the-title players, meaning that LuPone and Ebersole are each apportioned their fair share of major moments and spotlight numbers. LuPone has the far funnier role: Wright gives the Polish-born Rubinstein, who refers to Arden derogatorily as “the other one,” the better wisecracks, but Frankel and Korie supply Ebersole with perhaps the best song of the night, “Pink,” a lush elegy to the Canadian Arden’s signature corporate color, and the darker hues of her unhappiness.
LuPone has her own vibrant, standout number, an homage to composer Kurt Weill titled “Forever Beautiful,” and the pair of them sing together ruefully, and touchingly, in “If I’d Been a Man.” The portrayals in “War Paint” are indeed of two professional women compelled to sacrifice personally much more than their male peers in their day, and as a result they come across sympathetically, in virtually equal measure; Arden and Rubinstein, whose one subject of agreement seems to have been their mutual detestation, would doubtless each accuse the production of seeking to normalize our perceptions of the other.
The show is based in part on a 2003 book of the same title by British biographer Lindy Woodhead (and a 2007 documentary, “The Powder and the Glory”), and, if anything, the musical — whose narrative structure and songbook have improved since an initial run — still might suffer from the rigorousness of its sourcing. It’s an edifying musical rather than an exciting one, certainly worth any theatergoer’s time. But those who will find the most value in it will have some abiding interest in the beauty industry, or in exploring the story of the struggle of women to achieve power and hold onto it. We’ve all just been through a national election unfolding the political version of that narrative.
In any event, Greif has overseen with great sophistication the staging and styling of a show that takes stock of commercial empires built on women’s insecurities about their age and appearance; the musical now begins with a disembodied voice stopping fashionable women on a street and suggesting to them that they might need some help enhancing their looks. So the surfaces of the show become inordinately important, a fact underlined in Catherine Zuber’s period-authentic, midcentury costumes and especially her ravishing hats, jewelry, gowns and suits for LuPone and Ebersole. David Korins’s sets prominently feature shelves stacked, row upon row, with perfume and cosmetics bottles, lighted by Kenneth Posner in lovely magentas and light and royal blues. Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations for the 14-member band rewardingly provide added color, under LuPone and Ebersole’s own incredibly durable instruments.
Douglas Sills and John Dossett, who portray key subordinates in the competing organizations (and then switch sides), are mostly on hand to grouse about being perpetually underappreciated. How they could be cemented into the story more dynamically is an unresolved issue; the characters just are not amusing enough, or allowed to present enough evidence demonstrating their impact on the business or their bosses’ lives, for us to be curious about them.
This may be a reflection of the essential tragedy of Rubinstein and Arden, neither of whom was big enough to reach out to the other, over their lifelong makeup war; there was no space in their boardroom or their bedroom for anyone but themselves. That “War Paint” takes pains to reveal this parallel emptiness speaks to one of the musical’s worthiest achievements: making room on a stage, to a degree virtually never seen, for star turns by two sublime female veterans of the musical theater. When Rubinstein and Arden were in their 60s, they were nowhere near ready to be ushered into the wings. And neither, thank goodness, are LuPone and Ebersole.
War Paint, book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli; sets, David Korins; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Kenneth Posner; orchestrations, Bruce Coughlin; music direction, Lawrence Yurman; sound, Brian Ronan; Wigs, David Brian Brown; production stage manager, Tripp Phillips; casting, Telsey + Company. With Erik Liberman, Steffanie Leigh. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Tickets, $79-$199. At Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York. Visit ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.