This project began with a fine title, one that conjurs up a fun musical once you know it’s about the battle for supremacy in the field of female skincare and beauty. It sounded like even more fun when Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole signed on to play Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, the two ladies who reigned supreme in the same field of battle from the late 1930s until 1960 when Charles Revson came along and figured out a way to make Revlon a leader in the field, making exotic makeup and glamour available to the masses who wanted to improve their mirror images. Book writer and composers Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie and their collaborative director Michael Greif (from Grey Gardens) further suggested that a big winner was on its way.
The opening moments of their musical War Paint were promising. A bevy of beauties sang about their need to put their “Best Face Forward” while they twirled about in Catherine Zuber’s glorious gowns reminding us of the days when women felt special in high fashion. Minutes later another set of them introduced us to what went on ‘Behind the Red Door’, in the world of Elizabeth Arden. Then, in the most old fashioned entrance dialog since Ina Claire and Katherine Cornell graced the stage, there she was — Arden herself.
Christine Ebersole loped down a small staircase, resplendent and in full command as she descended to greet her staff and start shouting commands. Moments later we met Madame Rubenstein descending another set of stairs, this one welcoming her back to America after a time in pre-Hitler Europe. She lets us know she’s “Back on Top”, having made a fortune selling her business and buying it back for much less, telling us that she has “My Secret Weapon”, which was her wealth and the bright mind that helped acquire it.
For the rest of Act One and through most of Act Two we met the husband of one and the right hand man of the other, as played by John Dossett and Douglas Sills, both of whom have shown us before that they have charm, talent, and appeal. Sills in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Dossett in the Bernadette Peters revival of Gypsy were then blessed with good material and the acting and singing chops to make their characters come alive. Alas, they’ve been let down this time out; their characters are used here mostly to help flesh out a story that is thin at best and trivial at worst.
As Rubenstein and Arden never actually met, the authors have been hampered by the need to make this musical a double biography, with Stage Left devoted to one, Stage Right to the other. We never get to know any of the company they kept when they were not at work trying to outsmart and outdo each other. Each of the two gifted stars were given ample onstage time, and it’s always fun to watch them work, for LuPone’s ‘take no prisoners’ approach is powerful and often great fun as she slings one liners at us in a heavily Russian-accented English.
She looks marvelous, surrounded in one scene by portraits of her painted by the top artists of her day, which fly down from the skies to compliment her and the gorgeous set behind her, designed and lit by David Korins and Kenneth Posner. LuPone and the set combine to properly define “lush.” And Ebersole’s more refined ways have been delighting us for years in plays like Dinner At Eight and musicals like Grey Gardens.
But though neither star has ever let me down, and they certainly don’t in this current opus, it’s more like seeing them in a back and forth tennis match using barbs instead of balls, with little attention paid to story or substance, melody or genuine mirth. No, War Paint concerns itself only with feuding between stars. A recent mini-series on television involving Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in a tug of war suffered a similar case of anemia.
Queens Elizabeth of England and Mary of Scotland never met face to face in real life, but Friedrich Schiller, in his play Mary Stuart, remedied that by forcing them together in a scene that gave great combustion to the play’s climax. Under similar circumstances War Paint librettist Doug Wright allows the two “dinosaurs” to manage tentative compromise as they sail off to receive an award that each had mistaken to be for herself. This final confrontation gives the two stars a chance to inch toward mutual regard, but it seems contrived, perhaps because it never happened. It also allows Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole to embrace during the curtain call just to show us they don’t really hate each other. But there is no disguising that there was no way to make this musical into more than a star vehicle with wobbly wheels.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.