Review: In ‘War Paint,’ Sing a Song of Face Creams

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After all, the creators of “War Paint” — Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) — have lovingly custom-tailored roles for Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole in a show that assures them separate ovation-garnering entrances, down a staircase (for Ms. Ebersole) and a gangplank (for Ms. LuPone). Both in their 60s, these enduringly vital actresses have reached an age where the field of juicy starring parts in musicals often feels limited to those of ” (Ms. LuPone has already won a Tony for that) and the title character of “Hello, Dolly!” (co-opted this season by Bette Midler).

In this sense, “War Paint,” directed by Michael Greif, might be seen as the musical equivalent of the mini-series in which Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon play the aging Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, when they made the shocker “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” together. (Ms. Ebersole’s Arden describes her and Rubinstein as “dueling actresses in our umpteenth sequel.”)

Like “Feud,” “War Paint” depicts a bitter rivalry between glamorous women struggling to stay in control in a field that is notorious for seeing women as perishable commodities. And neither show shies entirely from the camp factor that is catnip to gay men and their female soul mates.

Photo

Ms. Ebersole, center, as Elizabeth Arden.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But in telling its story, “Feud” has one whopping advantage, in that Davis and Crawford actually worked together, side by thorny side. There is no record of Rubinstein and Arden’s having met, though they ruled their fast-expanding beauty empires from the same Manhattan neighborhood in the same era. (The show is set between 1935 and 1964.)

This lack of face-to-face time has forced the authors of “War Paint” to depict the women’s twinned biographies as a series of parallel lives, acted out in counterpoint on separate sides of the stage. Thus we learn that for all their differences, Rubinstein, a Polish Jew, and Arden, a Canadian Episcopalian, were ultimately twin sisters under their pancake-covered skin.

The shows count the ways that this is true: They’re both self-inventions; they’re both excluded from snooty New York society; they both realize that they wouldn’t have half the problems they have if they had been men; and they know — oh boy, do they know — that it’s lonely at the top.

It’s the loneliness part that creates the most conventionally dynamic scenes. Both Arden and Rubinstein quarrel with, and are betrayed by, men they love, who feel emasculated by their dominating women and wind up changing alliances even before the first-act curtain falls. For Arden, that’s her husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett); for Rubinstein, her gay right-hand man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills).

Lewis and Fleming are thankless parts, which may be appropriate to a show about women who rule, but it doesn’t make their whiny company less tedious, despite the talented actors playing them. Their existence does lead to a rather amusing sequence in which, their traitorous men having spilled the beans on their beauty formulas, Rubinstein and Arden are forced to appear before a Senate investigation committee.

Otherwise, “War Paint” is a double portrait of unchanging women during changing times. The passage of years is signaled by the deluxe period costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, and by the foxtrot-to-frug dance steps of Christopher Gattelli’s choreography; the leading ladies’ eternal solitude is expressed by David Korins’s coffinlike walls-of-products set.

The show has slightly shifted its focus since its Chicago incarnation. It now begins not with its stars at separate vanity tables, contemplating their visages, but with a chorus of smartly dressed women heeding the call of a bodiless voice to beautify themselves.

That is of a piece with a work in which the dubious ethics of an industry that preys on female insecurity are considered at length, as are the minutiae of packaging and marketing. (What other musical features songs listing ingredients in face creams?) But the compression of extensive research can make “War Paint” sound like a singing Wikipedia entry.

Photo

Ms. Ebersole, center left, as Elizabeth Arden, and Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ms. Ebersole and Ms. LuPone go a great distance in disguising the show’s essential sameness. Ms. LuPone, wearing heavy jewels and a Polish accent to match, is as imposing as Rubinstein must have been, and presumably a whole lot funnier.

Ms. Ebersole, blithe and brittle, is equally formidable in a lighter vein. And Mr. Frankel and Mr. Korie, who gave Ms. Ebersole the part of a lifetime with their best-known collaboration (with Mr. Wright), have written numbers for their stars that cannily play to their separate but equal strengths — think trumpet (Ms. LuPone) and flute (Ms. Ebersole) — and even make an asset of Ms. LuPone’s notoriously garbled diction in song.

Photo

Ms. LuPone as Helena Rubinstein, surrounded by portraits of her done by notable artists.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

So, though my eyes occasionally glazed seeing “War Paint” for the second time, I wouldn’t have missed it, if only to hear its leading ladies’ climactic ballads. Ms. LuPone has an ardently sung tribute to the preservative powers of narcissism, during which a gallery of Rubinstein’s portraits by famous artists materializes behind her.

And in the show’s most exquisite number, Arden takes inventory of an existence lived in a pale shade of rose. The song is called “Pink,” and as Ms. Ebersole delivers that seemingly cheery word, it is weighted with triumph, regret, defiance and anger, all struggling for ascendancy. It’s a reminder of how a single ballad, and a lone interpreter, can capture the full, ambivalent spectrum of a lifetime.

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