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Regional Reviews: Chicago

War Paint
Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's reviews of Death of a Salesman, An Ideal Husband, Between Riverside and Crazy and Tomorrow Morning

Patti LuPone
Photo by Joan Marcus
Though musicals adapted from movies have been a trend for nearly 20 years now, the idea of adapting a documentary film into a musical seemed a stretch until the team of Doug Wright, Michael Korie and Scott Frankel gave us Grey Gardens. That trio has returned to the documentary pool with this dual biography of cosmetics magnates Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden and, though we've had biographical musicals before, this one is a fresh take on the genre.

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.

I can't say I've ever had a lot of curiosity about the cosmetics industry, but like other musical theatre fans, the announcement of a vehicle for both Christine Ebersole and Patti

and Christine Ebersole
Photo by Joan Marcus
LuPone was irresistible, promising not one but two diva roles in a single musical. The two stars don't disappoint, but Ms. LuPone has the better material to work with. She plays Helena Rubinstein, the Polish immigrant born into poverty who (like Arden) became one of the first female executives of a large U.S. corporation. LuPone's Rubinstein sports a heavy Polish accent and is amusingly arrogant, frequently unselfaware, but not without heart. LuPone makes the most of the material, dryly delivering the laughs with tightly pulled back hair and heavy makeup and sharing her signature vocal style in Frankel and Korie's jazzy, mostly period score. Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations, as played by a 13-piece orchestra conducted by music director Lawrence Yurman, sound rich and full.

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 in—Arden 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 side—with 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 women—and 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

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