Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein in War Paint, directed by Michael Greif, at the Goodman Theatre.
Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein in War Paint, directed by Michael Greif, at the Goodman Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

War Paint, now making its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, marks a reunion for the team that created the lauded Grey Gardens: composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, librettist Doug Wright, and director Michael Greif. Starring Tony Award winning actresses Christine Ebersole (also of Grey Gardens) and Patti LuPone, War Paint tells the story of the relentless professional rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, two moguls of the cosmetics industry.

Arden (Ebersole), an elegant blond who seems as comfortable mingling with Upper East Side society doyennes as she is controlling her eponymous company, is selling an image as much as a product. Her creams and tonics come packaged all in pink, topped with big pink bows. Ever aware of the power of her image, Arden refuses to cede any billing to her husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), even when it means losing him entirely.

Rubinstein (LuPone) cannot rely on a personal image to sell her brand. She is exacting and severe, a Polish Jew who sets her sights on American success only after building a flourishing beauty empire in Europe. In Rubinstein's cosmetics, she says, "science and beauty dance cheek to cheek." She expects only perfection, from herself, her team of chemists, and her constant companion, vice president of sales Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills).

In a twist that would seem unbelievable if it hadn't happened in real life, Fleming defects to Arden's company, and in retaliation for being replaced, Arden's husband joins forces with Rubinstein. These two men serve as foils to each woman, counseling and guiding their bosses even as they despair of ever understanding them.

Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole are wonderfully suited to play the two titans. Ebersole's voice is as smooth as lotion, lightly floating through Frankel's score. Her Elizabeth Arden is self-assured and warm, the antithesis to Patti LuPone's caustic Helena Rubinstein. LuPone slings barbs and drops malapropisms throughout the first act, but in the second, Rubinstein's humanity takes center stage. Singing the eleventh-hour ballad "Forever Beautiful," LuPone is as powerful as she has ever been.

The signature looks of the two leads are present in every aspect of War Paint's design. Catherine Zuber's costumes are as lush and appealing as one of Elizabeth Arden's pink boxes. It is imperative that these women are perfectly painted at all times, and Angelina Avallone's makeup design does the trick.

The set, designed by David Korins, is a study in contrast. Arden's spaces are pillowy-soft and full of florals, while Rubinstein is at home in sleek chrome, stained woods, and, delightfully, a clear Plexiglas bed. The set is backed at all times by a full wall of clear cosmetics bottles, which prove surprisingly versatile thanks to Kenneth Posner's lighting design, adding depth, texture, and even occasional whimsy to the proceedings. Rounding out the design is Brian Ronan's sound, which layers newsreel clips without feeling cacophonous.

As legend would have it, Arden and Rubinstein never actually met. War Paint, based on Lindy Woodhead's book War Paint and on the documentary film The Powder & the Glory, shows Rubinstein and Arden living parallel lives, rather than coming into direct conflict. A cycle emerges: a brief split-screen scene where each woman deals with the same problem; a solo from one, then the other, then they sing together, rinse and repeat.

By the end of Act 1 the rhythms grow predictable. The book, by Doug Wright, plows through 27 years of the rivalry between Rubinstein and Arden, with very little breathing room. When the pace slows down enough for the characters to speak to one another, their dialogue is moving and engaging. Frankel and Korie's songs are exquisite, and perfectly performed not only by the leads but also by the talented ensemble.

While War Paint needs some contouring, all the elements of an excellent musical are onstage at the Goodman. It should absolutely not be missed.