And God said, "Let there be insecurity." At least, that's how it all begins in War Paint, the new show about dueling queens of cosmetics, played by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in the most anticipated musical matchup of the season. A voice from the heavens singles out one of the ensemble members and says, "You! Yes, you. Not every woman is a natural beauty, but the right face cream can work miracles!" It's a captivating hook for what turns into a less-than-engaging musical book report about the two women most responsible for how we market beauty today: If God created negative body image on the eighth day, God also created Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden on the ninth.
Both immigrants to the United States (Arden from Canada, Rubinstein from Poland), the two women ruled over their own multimillion-dollar lines of cosmetics in a time when women mostly entered corporate America through secretarial school. Their rivalry is well documented in Lindy Woodhead's book War Paint, and the subsequent Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman documentary The Powder & the Glory, both of which are credited as inspiration for this musical.
Forgoing the chapters in which Arden and Rubinstein actually built their businesses from scratch, book writer Doug Wright begins his story in 1935, when both women are already wildly successful. Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole) is the No. 1 name in beauty, with a chain of red-doored salons catering to the upper-crust. But Helena Rubinstein (LuPone) is coming up from behind: After selling her American business to Lehman Brothers (which lost much of its value in the crash of 1929), Rubinstein rejoins the fray by buying it back (at a significant discount).
With the help of her trusty gay sidekick, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), Rubinstein is ready to challenge Arden for the crown. But Arden has a secret weapon in the form of her husband and wholesale-division manager Tommy Lewis (John Dossett). The two women undermine each other at every turn by poaching employees and pioneering new products. Prepare thee for lyrics drawn from the side of a jar of face cream: "The glycol, the boric acid, the humectant, the glycerin."
Unfortunately, Wright has not refined these raw ingredients into the finished product of a compelling drama. The fact that Arden and Rubinstein never actually met face-to-face is a problem he never really solves, sapping the story of much-needed drama.
Composer Scott Frankel offers a lovely old Broadway sound, complete with hefty brass and woodwind parts. It's a handsome setting for Michael Korie's clever lyrics, but the fact that the songs so rarely underline significant dramatic beats results in a score that is mostly forgettable. We witness one solo after another in which our two leading ladies stand downstage and sing their thoughts. It feels more like a succession of puffed-up military parades than a hot war.
That's too bad because we get the sense that our two lead actresses are combat-ready. Ebersole brings a glowing voice and sharp tongue to the role of Arden. Her smile is one you might encounter in the jungle, just before you are eaten.
As to be expected, LuPone endows Rubinstein with her own famously pugnacious spirit. She has the audience eating out of her hand with lines like, "I am extravagant in my anger, as I am in all things," delivered with a Mitteleuropean inflection added to her trumpet voice. While it works wonders in the book scenes, it tends to obscure Korie's lyricism in song: If you thought you had trouble understanding Patti LuPone before, wait until you hear her sing in a Polish accent.
Michael Greif directs a visually stunning but dramatically lumbering production. David Korins' set of sliding art deco panels highlights aspects of our characters (like Rubinstein's love of African art) not otherwise revealed in Wright's book. Plus, we can't help but get a kick out of watching LuPone motor onstage in a Lucite sleigh bed with champagne sheets. In addition to offering a subtly shifting array of period looks (the show takes place between 1935 and 1964), costume designer Catherine Zuber also has fun weighing LuPone down in a treasure chest full of Rubinstein's signature clunky jewelry. Naturally, David Brian Brown's wigs and Angelina Avallone's makeup are on point. But none of it can compensate for a story that is fundamentally inert.
The late entry of nail magnate Charles Revson (Erik Liberman, giving the Revlon founder a slimy varnish) seems to promise fresh conflict, but it never really materializes. A final scene with our two protagonists proves to be a disappointment, as tea-sipping shade devolves into a half-hearted feint at "Changed for Good" girl power. It leaves us with a cynical aftertaste.
In the end, War Paint most suffers from a lack of stakes. Abandoning their overture about the larger implications of the beauty revolution, the creatives instead spend two hours and 30 minutes dwelling on less gripping subjects, and this is a real mistake: It's hard to get truly worked up about Rubinstein's conflicts with her co-op board or Arden's unsuccessful attempt to gain access to an ultraexclusive society club, but those both get a song. We know that these two millionaire ladies will be fine. Not so for the women we encountered in the opening sequence, spending their hard-earned dough in an increasingly futile effort to stop time.
If you're an American woman (or, increasingly, gay man) chances are you have a product sitting in your bathroom modeled after one first introduced by Arden or Rubinstein. It might be on your face right now. Sadly, for a story that so intimately touches us all, War Paint feels as cold as La Mer.