DIVAS ONLY NEED APPLY: WAR PAINT

Divas dominated this Broadway season - Glenn Close reprising her role as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOPULEVARD and Bette Midler making Dolly Levy her own in the revival of HELLO, DOLLY! But the real double diva treat is WAR PAINT featuring the inimitable Patti LuPone and the beloved Christine Ebersole - with nearly 80 years of musical theatre credentials between them - as cosmetic queens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Never mind that the beauty industry magnates never actually met. Playwright Doug Wright has stitched together a narrative that is as much socio-cultural time-travel through a post-modern feminist lens as it is a semi-campy pastiche of Broadway musical conventions.

Though Rubinstein and Arden differed vastly in backgrounds they we remarkably similar in how they re-invented themselves to appeal to different segments of the women’s cosmetic markets. “Madame” Rubinstein grew up in a Jewish shtetl in Poland but cultivated a persona of Eastern European nobility that appealed to the aspiring second generation women of immigrant ethnics. Arden escaped the impoverishment of an Ontario farm life to present herself as a cultured woman of WASP good breeding to appeal to upper class, New York society types. Fact-based, too, is Wright’s take on their business acumen. Both adopted modern principles of health science to product development and innovative marketing techniques. Still, Rubinstein envied Arden for her signature “pink” design packaging and Arden envied Rubinstein for her “secret formulas” for her product.

Into this historical background, Wright works two “men in their lives”, somewhat based on fact, who expediently create a narrative bond that glues his book together. Arden’s husband and marketing executive Tommy Lewis (dutifully played, like the character, by John Dosset) can’t take Arden anymore and ends up working for Rubinstein. Rubinstein’s “companion” and advertising man, the closeted homosexual Harry Fleming (dutifully played, like the character, by Douglas Sills) can’t take Rubinstein anymore and ends up working for Arden. Really. If the parallels between the two cosmetic queens weren’t facile enough, this partner-switcheroo provides ample fodder for the women to fret mutually over how they put business before relationships. It’s just a matter of time before they are both lamenting the injustice of being women in a man’s world in the duet “If I’d Been a Man”.

Except for a few scenes of “book” dialogue, most of the story, which occurs in Manhattan between 1935 and 1964 (just before Rubinstein and Arden’s deaths), is told through 20 musical numbers, some interstitial sing-through dialogue. The music is by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, who both worked with Ms Ebersole on GREY GARDENS, as did director Michael Greif, who also directs DEAR EVEN HANSEN this season. Greif cleverly integrates scenes with assist from the nimble orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin and a unifying set design by David Korins. Rubinstein pretty much stays stage left to tell her life story, Arden stage right. The backdrop is a huge expanse of shelved, translucent perfume bottles that reflect the shifting lighting designs of Kenneth Posner.

Versatile costume designer Catherine Zuber does homage to the legendary movie costumer Edith Head, evoking styles from the Art-Deco of the 1930s, to WAC military uniforms and Rosie-the-Riveter coveralls of WWII, to Fifties swimwear, right up to Op-Art miniskirts of the Sixties. The individual costumes for LuPone and Ebersole, particularly Rubinstein’s with layers of opulent (gaudy), ornate jewelry, are over-the-top. Does anyone still wear a hat? Rubinstein and Arden sure do.

Overall, there’s a cinematic quality to the production. The opening sequence set in the Elizabeth Arden flagship store in Manhattan, with the ensemble of woman customers, looks like a Technicolor version of the spa sequence in the film classic “The Women.” Choreography is by Christopher Catelli. Dancing is pretty much left to the ensemble in WAR PAINT: the divas don’t engage in it much at all.

Besides the recurring theme of women’s struggle, the songs reflect the competition between cosmetic businesses (“My Secret Weapon”), how cosmetics emboldened women’s’ identity (“Better Yourself”), or the undiluted pursuit of the good old American Dream (“My American Moment”).

WAR PAINT covers a lot of ground, making awkward short-shrift of Rubinstein’s relatives caught in German-occupied Poland, moving onto a big WWII ensemble number, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”. (War paint, besides being a metaphor for the imagined relationship of the two cosmetic queens, is also what Arden called the lipstick she developed for the WACS in WWII service.)

In the 1950s, Rubinstein faces anti-Semitism when denied purchase of a penthouse on Park Avenue. (She goes out and buys the whole building). Arden suffers injustice, too: she’s denied entry into the Waspy Mayfair Club, because she’s nouveau-riche and not “old money.” Wright more deftly incorporates upstart Charles Revson into the plot as the diva’s mutual nemesis, who perceives the market changing with the times, moving cosmetics from department store luxury items into inexpensive drugstore staples. By this point, the aging beauty magnates’ careers have peaked, noted in a witty duet between Harry and Tommy in “Dinosaurs”.

WAR PAINT finally hits its stride for the last 30 minutes. The divas get below skin deep and Frankel serves up his best music. Ebersole and LuPone each get big 11 o’clock numbers. In “Pink”, Arden furiously unleashes a lifetime of private disappointment. For a moment, Ebersole’s rage recalls Elaine Stritch’s “Ladies Who Lunch” in COMPANY. In “Forever Beautiful”, in reviewing the gallery of portraits of herself by artists like Dali and Picasso, Rubinstein’s outer aggression gives way to inner, reflective melancholy. LuPone pours it out, with all her vocal idiosyncrasies, layer upon layer.

For the finale, Rubinstein and Arden meet privately in a fictionalized award ceremony wherein they, by mistake, are both honorees. In a soulful duet “Beauty of the World” there is a truce which is really each coming to peace with the self. WAR PAINT is not quite the tour de force that might have resulted from a deliriously fantastical treatment of its fictional premise. For this semi reality-based, literal production to work, real divas playing divas are the vital, magic ingredient. Lucky for WAR PAINT it has LuPone and Ebersole.

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