War Paint

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 14, 2017
    Review by:

    This is one of those times when a person straps on her writing gear and gets to the task at hand because, as Charles Mee says, "writing is not about saying something, it is about discovering something."

    As I was searching through the available photos to add to this review I was going round and round because I was looking for a photo where these two giants Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) were together - not just on the same stage but in the same "room" looking at each other.

    But of course, they were not. While they were on each other's radar, the story goes that Rubenstein and Arden were never in each other's company. The book of this musical does not address this fact until the very final scene that "never happened."

    Elizabeth Arden was born Florence Nightingale Graham on a farm in Ontario. She came to New York in 1907. Helena Rubinstein was born Chaya Rubinstein in Krakow, Poland and came to New York in 1914. Together they took the concept of 'make-up" which had been relegated to women in the theatre and the brothel, and transformed it into a commodity that was pristine.

    Arden and Rubenstein were charlatans of the first order. "Every woman deserves to be beautiful," Arden announced after giving away free lipstick to the Suffragists (NB suffragette is a derogatory term that reduced the women fighting for civil rights to more or less capricious children). They figured out how to sell youth to young women, and conveyed the promise of the same to their older sisters. Beauty was not only a right, it was a choice, and there was not a woman on the planet who would not benefit from carrying a hairbrush and lipstick with her at all times. The idea of beauty carried with it weight and equality. A woman seen is a woman heard.

    Or so they promised. In their own lives they smashed through the glass ceiling and were among the first women at the head of their respective companies. But this was a hollow victory when they were not allowed to be part of the class that they served. The private club of choice, the Mayfair Club, would not admit Arden as a member. Rubenstein was denied the right to purchase an apartment on Park Avenue because she was Jewish. PS She bought the building. Private lives were no less butty. Their men (one husband and one aide de camp) deserted them and went to work for the "other woman."

    Other fun facts: Arden used the same formula for her horses as she did for her human clients. Day creme and night were the same thing in different packages. Both women embraced World War II and the women who served it here and on the front. In the 1950's when Charles Revson grabbed the spotlight by advertising on television (how common!) with his new Revlon line of products, these two women refuse to stoop that low. A ten-minute beauty regimen is an oxymoron. Upstarts like Estée Lauder and Helen Curtis were not who you thought they were - but then neither were Arden and Rubenstein. According to this story they clung to their empires like dowagers until their deaths - only a year apart.

    And not for nuthin' - we also witness the extraordinary talents of Ebersole and Lupone. To hear them sing is to listen to the heavens break open and put down pure gold. Never mind that the music itself is not up to the grace of the voices that deliver it. These two women, like the giants they portray, keep their eye on the target every second they are onstage. And probably off stage as well.

    What we don't get, and why the writers did not take this risk is a mystery, is the two women squaring off face-to-face, war paint to war paint. So what if they never met? The book already takes liberties with facts and dates. Why not go all the way and swing from the rafters with story-telling daring? These women altered the course of society. Get it? They lived in rarified air. But this book in many ways dismisses them as anecdotal figures, as people who merely invented ways for silly women to pass the time.

    This musical takes as it's title from the biography by Lindy Woodhead. Additional source material came from a documentary film aptly titled "The Powder & the Glory." Get it? The Powder. Even a PBS documentary slights these two women.

    My conclusion: Where is Hilary when we need her?

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole (notice how tactfully I’m shifting the order in which they’re mentioned) are not coasting on the market value of their star appeal. They’re strategically deploying the knowledge and craft of a combined eight decades in musicals to make us believe that the show in which they appear is moving forward, instead of running in place in high heels... 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."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "LuPone’s performance is slathered in gusto. Ebersole’s turn is creamier than any emollient. They’re so good, you wish the show were better. As is, it’s polished to a high shine but bland and scarcely skin deep. And it took not one but two source materials to produce this."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "David Korins’s set and Catherine Zuber’s costumes complement the musical at every turn, and Michael Greif's direction keeps it moving efficiently along. But the show doesn’t make a persuasive case that its stories must be told."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Two Broadway greats in a classy vehicle worthy of their immense talents."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "'War Paint' is a musical about Catherine Zuber’s fabulous costumes and magnificent hats, as modeled by the great Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein, and her Highness, Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden. And if those hallowed names mean nothing to you, this is not your show."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety