Regional Reviews: Chicago
Inspired by the film The Powder and the Glory by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman and the book "War Paint by Lindy Woodhead, it may just become the first musical to be required viewing in business schools. While the material is told in dramatic form, with the private scenes between the leading ladies and their men presumably imagined and fictionalized, a good deal of the content is concerned with the business strategies of the two cosmetics firms. So once again, as with Grey Gardens, give this team props for expanding the genre.
The stars have 14 songs apiece exactly. LuPone's numbers skew to the upbeat while Ebersole's are heavier on ballads. Ebersole's voice is impressively on display as well, but scene-wise, the writers have given her less to work with inArden is not as quirky or funny as Rubinstein. She comes off here as intelligent, capable, classy, and even a bit vulnerable, but without the sorts of character flaws or great strengths that make for a fascinating character.
With Douglas Sills and John Dossett, director Michael Grief has two of Broadway's most capable performers as the key men in Rubinstein and Arden's lives. Dossett is Tommy Lewis, Arden's husband who is also a key executive in her company, but whom she divorces and fires after finding that he's been romantically unfaithful. This breakup of a successful team (at least in business) is paralleled with Sills' character Harry Fleming. Fleming is Rubinstein's longtime marketing/advertising manager who quits in a huff after a fight with Rubinstein over his clandestine gay sexual affairs. Soon, true to the parallel structure of this musical, the men each cross over to the other sidewith Harry going to work for Arden and Tommy joining Rubinstein's team. Both actors have great voices and stage presence and suggest depth in characters who are clearly secondary to the great ladies at the top. The scenes between the men and their bosses tend to be staged rather statically, though, as Greif generally has the women seated at a desk while the men pace around.
It's a great looking production, beginning with the high fashion period designs (the period is the 1930s to the 1960s) by Catherine Zuber. David Korins's set works from a background of shelves of bottles of cosmetics, with various flats and set pieces rolled on as scenes change. It's all beautifully lit by Kenneth Posner. As one might expect, the hair and makeup design by David Brian Brown and Angelina Avelone, respectively, are worthy of the subject matter.
War Paint's plot begins with Rubinstein's return to New York after an absence. The two have been competitors for years, though, and when Rubinstein opens a salon just blocks away from Arden's Red Door salon on midtown Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, their bitter rivalry escalates as both seek the business of wealthy women intent on preserving their youth. Arden relies more on packaging and branding, with Rubinstein focusing her appeals on secret chemical formulas. Beyond the personal dramas of their breakups with Lewis and Fleming, the story is generally concerned with their business strategies over the next three decades. It travels from U.S. Senate hearings leading to the enactment of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act through World War II to the changes in economy due to mass-marketing fueled by the emergence of commercial television.
We see a young Charles Revson approach Rubinstein and Arden with his ideas for a lower priced product, only to be rebuffed by both, who refuse to change their business strategies from high end, high margin to moderately priced items for mass consumption. Revson is vindicated later, when Revlon uses the TV show "The $64,000 Question" to make it the most successful mass-marketed line of cosmetics, bringing serious declines to Rubinstein and Arden's businesses and financial fortunes.
As the two cosmetic magnates work through the changes of the middle decades of the 20th century, it's suggested that Arden and Rubinstein have much in common, both in the business challenges they face and the demands of leading such large enterprises. The two never met in real life, though the musical constructs a fictitious meeting in the mid-1960s, shortly before their passings. It's a brief suggestion of sisterhood through rivalry.
Though this is an elaborate, handsome production, War Paint remains in respects more of a chamber musical with its focus on the four leading characters. The ensemble is mainly womenand there are just three big production numbers, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. The first, following a prologue in which Arden and Rubinstein are ruminating at separate desks in separate places, is "Behind the Red Door," in which beauty technicians and society matrons establish the environment of the Arden Red Door salon. The staging remains fairly simple until the act two opener, the title song "War Paint," energetically staged by Gattelli with colorful costumes evoking the iconic "Rosie the Riveter." The stunner, though, is "Fire and Ice," a sexy, red-infused number meant to be a television commercial for a Revlon product line shown on "The $64,000 Question."
As War Paint stands right now, it's a gorgeous and entertaining vehicle for the two stars. While it would probably sell well on the basis of the LuPone and Ebersole names, the musical could use some more emotional power and fleshing out of the Arden character to deliver the sorts of visceral satisfaction we get from the most successful musicals.
War Paint will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, Chicago, through August 21, 2016. For more information or for tickets, visit www.goodmantheatre.org.