Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole Deftly Apply ‘War Paint'

Legendary talents Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole play rival cosmetics titans in a highly anticipated new musical that -- hear this, clearly -- is not a two-act cat fight between dueling so-called divas, but rather a smart portrayal of the obstacles faced by a pair of America's earliest female entrepreneurs.

“War Paint,” directed by Michael Greif (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and now open at the Nederlander Theatre, benefits foremost from the remarkable symmetry between its leads.

LuPone’s Helena Rubinstein is quick with the one-liners, autocratic and extravagant in gesture. Any concern that Ebersole’s Elizabeth Arden could seem pallid in comparison is folly: Ebersole ensures that Arden has a core of iron resolve and vivacity, beneath a carefully cultivated patrician manner. She’s pretty in pink ... and tough as nails.

Doug Wright’s book takes the duo from Park Avenue society to the halls of Congress, where the competitors nearly destroy each other by drawing attention to the unusual components -- gelatinous hoof of horse! -- in their products. Rubinstein's best-selling cream is sumptuous ingredients in indifferent packaging; Arden's is the reverse.

LuPone moves through the musical in swaths of swishing bright fabric, landing her bon mots with machine-gun precision: “It is dangerous to wound the enemy,” she tells Arden’s spurned husband (John Dossett), when he offers to sell-out his former spouse. She waits a beat: “The blow must be fatal.”

Give yourself a few minutes to adapt to the Eastern European accent LuPone employs throughout.

Like Dossett, Douglas Sills is up to his task as Rubinstein's frustrated sales genius, a gay surrogate husband with an eye for sailors. After their careers are shattered, Sills and Dossett share a second act duet, “Dinosaurs,” that’s downright jolly. Bookkeeping! Give these guys 80 cents on the dollar!

The score, by “Grey Gardens” team Scott Frankel and Michael Korie -- Wright and Ebersole were also both part of that memorable 2006 musical -- is tuneful and catchy, winding up to a pair of bittersweet releases for the stars, just before the finale: “Pink,” sung by Ebersole, and “Forever Beautiful,” from LuPone.

Good God, the women’s voices are in astounding condition. It's revelatory to hear these theater veterans, both so associated with particular megahits, simply singing lyrics that for most of us will be brand new.

Angelina Avallone surely had unusual pressures on her in the realm of makeup design. Her lead characters age ever-so-gracefully. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who earned a Tony for his work on “Newsies” in this same space, has his chorus girls kicking things up as if it were “42nd Street.”

Ultimately, both Rubinstein and Arden refuse to adapt to post-war shifts in taste that they don't understand, leaving room for outsider Charles Revson (Erik Liberman, in a sharp, smarmy performance) to swoop in. In assessing their careers, the women raise the possibility that their life’s work might, in ways, have been anti-feminist.

By the time Wright’s book arrives at the inevitable face-to-face confrontation between Rubenstein and Arden, so much time has elapsed that their meeting is something of a misty-eyed anticlimax. They've been such evenly matched enemies that there has never been the thrilling possibility one might get the upper hand and force her rival into showing new resourcefulness in fighting back.

That quibble aside, a double star-vehicle like this is a Broadway rarity. “War Paint,” mostly, is bliss and makeup.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

“War Paint,” at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets, $79-$189, on sale through Sept. 3. Call 800-745-3000.

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