Chicago Theatre Review
There Are No Ugly Women, Only Lazy Ones
War Paint – Goodman Theatre
Two women enter the ring, but who will exit the victor? In the case of this new musical, about the lifelong rivalry between makeup mavens, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, it’s a draw. No one wins, but then no one really loses, either. Based upon Lindy Woodhead’s book, of the same name, which in turn became the 2007 documentary film, “The Powder and the Glory,” this new musical, features a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie (the creative trio behind Broadway’s award-winning “Grey Gardens”). The show is currently premiering at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in a star-studded pre-Broadway tryout.
As sleek, stylish and skillful as the two entrepreneurs whose careers inspired this biographical musical, renowned Broadway director Michael Greif (“Next to Normal,” “If/Then”) has guided this professional production to magnificence, with energy, humor and considerable polish. Supported by Christopher Gattelli’s stylish choreography (Tony winner for “Newsies”), as well as fine musical direction by the superb Lawrence Yurman, this production entertains, educates and enlightens.
At a time in American history when women primarily dedicated their lives to being mothers, wives and homemakers, these incredible ladies are remembered as two of the first real feminists. They each forged noteworthy careers that were far beyond the norm. Miss Arden, a farmer’s daughter from Canada, and Miss Rubinstein, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, each developed her own special, individual beauty line and created elite salons aimed at the upper class. With the assistance of her executive director husband, Tommy Lewis, Elizabeth Arden branded her product around the color pink. The unmarried Helena Rubinstein, who utilized scientific formulas in her makeup, heavily relied upon the marketing expertise of her gay assistant, Harry Fleming. To their chagrin, each woman eventually severed ties with their respective men, only to see them reemployed, ironically, by her rival. Both women’s careers endured the ups and downs of five decades, refusing to meet or even utter each others name in all that time. At the end of this fictionalized account, however, the two champions finally meet, accidentally, as the honorees of a prestigious women’s club.
Besides the sharply inspired guidance provided by Mr. Greif, much credit for the sparkle and electricity of this show must go to both of its two-time Tony Award-winning stars. As Helena Rubinstein, Patti Lupone (“Evita,” “Gypsy”) is a miracle. Portraying this shrewd, stern administrator of a beauty empire, Ms. Lupone is a force of nature, unyielding and seldom even cracking a smile. Every gesture, every piercing glance is a lesson in precise, economic acting. Christine Ebersole (“42nd Street,” “Grey Gardens”) journeys from being a girlish, groundbreaking businesswoman, who knows what she wants and how to achieve it, to a woman driven by the need to be on top. Playing both a skilled executive and a creative artist, Ms. Ebersole claws her way to success and prominence. The underlying motivation behind both women, however, is to succeed beyond her rival, and that constant battle does become a bit redundant, after two hours and 35 minutes.
Ms. Lupone electrifies in songs like “Now You Know” and her eleventh hour musical soliloquy, “Forever Beautiful;” while Ms. Ebersole dazzles with “Better Yourself” and her final gut-wrenching, self-reflective number, “Pink.” Both divas share many musical moments, although never sharing a scene until the very end. “Face to Face,” “If I’d Been a Man,” “My American Moment” and the stirring “Beauty in the World” are just a few of their fine songs, in a show that’s especially music-heavy.
The production’s ensemble is incomparable. Douglas Sills, as Harry Fleming, and John Dossett, as Tommy Lewis are both strong, talented actors and, while their roles are designed primarily to support the two leading ladies, they provide their own dramatic and musical highlights. The barroom duet, “Dinosaurs,” is an especially revealing scene. Erik Liberman is funny and displays a strong voice as cosmetic competitor, Charles Revson. Chicago’s own Mary Ernster and David Girolmo are terrific in a variety of featured roles. The rest of this unbelievably talented ensemble, each unique in his or her own way, blend together to create characters who are the cream of society, talented television executives and savvy businessmen.
Ms. Rubinstein’s said, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” The same might apply to this new musical. It’s beautiful, with not a single moment of ugliness, and there’s nothing lazy about the professional creative talent involved in this production. The show boasts a gifted cast and support team. The musical sports an elegant, glisteningly detailed and flowing scenic design by David Korins, as well as an array of stunning, period-perfect, beautifully-tailored costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lawrence Yuber’s rich, full-sounding pit orchestra accompanies the cast, but never overpowers their vocal performances.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Chicago audiences to revel in the power and artistry of two of Broadway’s legendary superstars. The show belongs to Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole. That, alone, makes this production a stellar occasion. Yet in telling the story of two of the toughest, smartest women of their day, Arden and Rubinstein challenged the establishment as entrepreneurs and creative geniuses. They’re story is inspirational and provides a sound lesson, learned late in the musical, that the strongest individual can become even greater when working and sharing with others. Loneliness surfaces every so often in their stories, and it’s in those instances that we see ourselves in these powerful, talented ladies.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 28-August 21 by the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Goodman box office, by calling them at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/WarPaint.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com