By Bill Beard
When the lights came up on The Goodman Theatre’s premiere of the new musical, War Paint, it became immediately obvious that we were in the presence of royalty! Not just because the show revolves around the two Queens of the American Cosmetics World, Hellena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, but even more because the roles are brought vividly to life by the two reigning Queens of the American Musical Theatre, Ms. Patty LuPone and Ms. Christine Ebersole!
One assumes that the casting of these musical monarchs was the choice of War Paint’s director Michael Greif, well known for Broadway’s Next to Normal, If/Then, Rent and of course his work with War Paint’s writing team of Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (Music), and Michael Korie (lyrics) on their award winning Grey Gardens, which Ms. Ebersole collaborated on and starred in.
Pairing Ms. LuPone with Ms. Ebersole was of course, sheer genius. Ebersole is the quintessential musical theatre leading lady, with the chic sophistication of an aging Doris Day and the elegant, smooth, controlled voice to go with it. Her Elizabeth Arden is cool and classy, allowing her few brittle unrestrained moments to be that much more revealing. Whereas Ms. LuPone’s Rubinstein is solid, stolid, sharp-edged, reflecting her Eastern European bucolic origins and her determination to “rise above”.
I have always considered Ms. LuPone as being in sort of a “class of her own”. She is not just a singer; she is a “song stylist”. She uses the total flexibility of her voice, every controlled little manipulation, to bring out each little nuance. She makes every song, indeed her every role, her own personal piece of art; par exam her Tony awards: Evita, and Gypsy, to say nothing of her double Grammy for her Los Angeles Opera production of Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
As Rubinstein, she uses her abundant talents to embody an enormously showy, almost grandiose ruler of her domain, surrounding herself with the most opulent collection of jewelry, collecting portraits of herself by famous artists, including one by Picasso (although acquiring it 30 years later). Once in awhile, Ms. LuPone may use her talent almost to a fault; e.g., her obvious insistence on a flawless Eastern European accent, even to the point of being occasionally difficult to understand. But she blends all into a magnificent embodiment of a woman of passion, determination and judgment. (By the way, she is the spitting image of a young Ruth Bader Ginsberg.)
Both Rubinstein and Arden came from simple backgrounds, and as their success and ensuing rivalry grows and expands, they viciously expose each other’s origins: Rubinstein: “Pedigreed? Ha! She’s Canadian!” Arden: “Royalty? She’s common as a cabbage!” They were both early “outsiders” in the predominantly men’s world of big business, but both were shrewd and ready to play whatever role required to climb to the top of the social ladder and to become the battling business bitches of beauty and find their individual thrones from which to reign their personal empires.
And reign they do! On Goodman’s royal stage; in a world of glorious stage designs. The entire evening is visually stunning! First the superbly contrived settings of David Korins (recently Tony nominated for Hamilton), with ingeniously manipulated scenery and stage dressings maintaining the separation of the lives of these devious divas. From the very first scene, the stage is divided in half with each doyenne ensconced in her elegant office, the action consistently divided and following the parallels of their careers.
Arden’s is of course a shimmering wash of brilliant pink, her signature color. But Rubinstein reflects her rather plain beginnings, preferring a more stark, somber appearance, relying on her constant acquisition of jewelry and furs to speak for her character. Mr. Korins’ scenic piece de resistance includes a fantastic display representing Rubinstein’s art collection, including some 20 hanging portraits, by famous artists, all of Rubinstein herself. Later she must auction them off in an attempt to save her empire.
Even more impressive is the creative couture of six-time Tony Award-winning costume designer, Catherine Zuber. The costumes are phenomenal! The plot may be based on the art of creating beauty with paint and powder, but the entire production becomes a constantly changing runway for the latest and most sophisticated haute couture designs, each one brilliantly “topped off” with some of the most magnificent millinery magic to be found anywhere.
There is no way that this plot could support equal roles for the male side of the cast. However, John Dossett as Arden’s husband, Tommy Lewis, and Douglas Sills, as Rubinstein’s gay Harry Fleming, prove to be marvelous companions, assistants, foils, basically general accoutrement for their respective ladies; and when their bosses steal and switch one guy for the other, the gentlemen manage very well the complete switch of position and loyalties. Sills proves to be the more convincing and interesting of the two, with Dossett leaning a bit too much on a sort of macho bluster.
But actually, it is Erik Liberman as Charles Revson who provides the much-needed mid-evening divertissement in the splashy colorful production number, Fire and Ice. [Revson was an insecure kid from a cold-water flat in Manchester, New Hampshire, who never went to college but went on to found Revlon. He was the “traveling salesman” of finger nail polish, who out-maneuvered both of our lipstick-and-face-powder titans when they snubbed the new television industry, and went on to use the advent of television marketing to build his own empire.]
Liberman, backed by chorus girls in bright red feathers (a break from the show’s pink), provided the brightest, most exuberant number of the night. It also made me wonder why no one has yet thought of turning author Andrew Tobias’ book, “Fire and Ice: The Story of Charles Revson, the Man Who Built the Revlon Empire” into a Broadway musical itself.
Let me not suggest that the rest of the music of War Paint is weak in any way. Actually, Frankel, Korie and Wright’s music, lyrics and book are all strong. From the opening number, A Woman’s Face, through to the powerful ending solos, Ebersole’s brilliant delivery of Arden’s Pink, and LuPone’s powerful rendition of Rubinstein’s Forever Beautiful, there will be very little need of attention before venturing on to Broadway (where this show obviously should be headed).
The script is sharp, bright and clever. And even though the two women never really meet face to face, their mutual opinions, attitudes and conflicts are made perfectly clear throughout. The evening is filled with both wisdom and zingers. When Rubinstein’s ethnic background prevents her from getting the penthouse she wants, she quips: “So I bought the whole damned building!” And at the end of Arden’s lengthy number about her world of “pink”, she blurts her strong final opinion: “I never even liked the damned color anyway!”
Goodman Theatre is known for presenting new adventures such as War Paint. In the words of Goodman’s Artistic Director Robert Falls‘ program notes: “The titanic struggles, outsized rivalries and magnetic allure of their (Rubinstein and Arden) lives and careers are the stuff on which great musicals are built….War Paint is a fascinating look at a time that saw, for better or worse, seismic changes in American culture and values and the two dynamos whose outsized passions, ambitions and energies gave it its face.”
America has always been known as the place where true rags-to-riches stories live. But in the upheaval of today’s economic, social, cultural and (God knows) political struggles, one can but wonder where the outsized passions, ambitions and energies of today’s dynamos will lead us. Hopefully…..prayerfully….it will be worthy of the creation of a great musical.
Meanwhile, don’t miss War Paint! It has just been extended through August 21. See it now with these two magnificent stars. We just don’t often have this kind of artistic creativity in process available so near by. The Goodman has always been Chicago’s top example of theatre artistry. For tickets and information, call 312-443-3800 or go online at GoodmanTheatre.org/WarPaint.