“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” Helena Rubinstein
The audaciously named “War Paint,” Goodman Theatre’s world premiere production, pits mid 20th-century cosmetic giants Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) in a decades long competition for top dog in the beauty biz.
Not unlike the “war paint” historically used by North American Indians, to decorate their faces and bodies before going into battle, the “War Paint” in the case of Rubinstein and Arden is what the battle is all about.
The story plays out magnificently through its musical score starting with the prologue “A Women’s Face” which in a nutshell compacts it all.
From there, the music takes us “Behind the Red Door” then moves on to the the victorious arrival of Helena & Her Beauty Technicians with the message “Back on Top.”
Next up, “Hope in a Jar” which is what both women, who famously despised each other, are selling–each in her own unique style wrapped in their special mystic.
The soft-spoken impeccably dressed Arden (Ebersole) does it her way with beautiful packaging, creative product names and her famous pampering Red Door chain of beauty spas and, of course, her signature pink that colored everything.
While the more common and outspoken Rubenstein (LuPone) does it her way with scientific hocus pocus, secret formulas and fierce determination.
A true story one could never makeup.
And what a story it is.
Brilliant innovators with humble roots, both women were masters of self-invention who sacrificed everything to become the country’s first major female entrepreneurs. They were also fierce competitors, whose 50-year tug-of-war would give birth to an industry. From Fifth Avenue society to the halls of Congress, their remarkable rivalry was ruthless, relentless and legendary—pushing both women to build international empires in a world dominated by men.
Both were geniuses at marketing with a little help from their men. Elizabeth’s man, her husband Tommy Lewis (John Dossett) and Rubenstein’s man Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills)–that is until they changed places with Elizabeth stealing Harry from Rubenstein and Lewis heading to the Rubenstein camp baring secrets.
The storied creative team features a prize-winning line-up including: playwright and librettist Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens); the celebrated creators of the scores for Grey Gardens and Far From Heaven, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie and Tony-award winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies, The King and I and the Goodman premiere of The Jungle Book) and Tony Award-nominated director Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens).
The production is based on the biography “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary film “The Powder & the Glory.”
The talented design team includes David Korins (set design), Catherine Zuber (costume design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design) and Brian Ronan (sound design), as well as Bruce Coughlin (orchestrations) and Lawrence Yurman (music director).
Powered by an all-star creative team and cast headed by two of Broadway’s most acclaimed divas, the two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone (Gypsy and Evita) and Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens and 42nd Street), the Goodman production has a powerful all-encompassing show biz vibe that could easily propel it all the way to Broadway with a few nips and tucks which is certainly a given in the business of beauty.
(taken from a 2003 review of the book, “War Paint” (Lindy Woodhead) by Linda Grant in the Guardian)
Rubinstein, born in 1872, had exactly what was needed for success: she was a consummate liar. Emigrating to Australia from Poland in 1896 with a pot of moisturiser, she understood that it was not the list of ingredients on the jar that interested women but a good story. The words “old family recipe”, “secret ingredient”, “Hungarian chemist”, “certain evergreen tree found only in the Carpathian mountains”, became the narrative that Rubinstein spun to cover the mundane fact that one of the oldest, cheapest and most effective base ingredients for face cream is lanolin, the oil produced by sheep, and in Australia she was surrounded by millions of them.
Arden, nine years younger, arrived in New York from Canada in 1907 after nondescript jobs in Toronto. Her first job in the business was as a cashier in a salon on Fifth Avenue, and having learned everything she could, she moved on to a partnership with one Elizabeth Hubbard, who was aiming for the carriage trade. Within six months she’d forced Hubbard out and was left with the name Elizabeth over the awning, which she kept to annoy her former partner. She took the name Arden from the name of the estate of a railroad baron. Unlike Rubinstein, she never made any claims for the mysterious origins of her formula, or spent much time in the lab. Her gift was for packaging, naming products and creating the basis for the modern beauty salon through her Red Door chain of beauty parlours.
Tickets and information
What: War Paint
When: runs now through August 14
Where: the Goodman Theatre’s 856-seat Albert Theatre.
Tickets: For tickets, call 312.443.3800 or online. Group savings are available for parties of 15 or more; call 312.443.3820 or email Groups@GoodmanTheatre.org.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including a 15 minute intermission
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
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