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‘War Paint’ a musical whose beauty is far more than skin deep

Christine Ebersole (from left) as Elizabeth Arden, Mary Ernster as Mrs. Trowbridge-Phelps and Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein in the world premiere musical, "War Paint," at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

There has been much chatter recently about the lack of leading roles for women in Broadway musicals. Yet for every Sweeney Todd, Phantom and Hamilton there also has been a Mama Rose, an Evita, a Carole King and the Big and Little Edies of “Grey Gardens” fame.

Now, with “War Paint,” the world premiere musical at the Goodman Theatre about the rivalry between mid-20th century cosmetics moguls Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, two terrific female roles have been added to the canon courtesy of the “Grey Gardens” team. And putting their indelible lipstick marks on these titans of face creams and other beauty potions are Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, a pair of Broadway divas uncannily suited to their characters: fierce rivals who turn out to be two faces of the same coin engaged in a “civil war” that raged from the 1930s through the early 1960s.

Rest assured, this is a musical whose beauty is far more than skin deep, with its many layers accruing gradually but confidently. It not only explores the psyches of two “outsiders” who refuse to be denied, but captures the enduring discrimination rooted in gender, social class and age. And it traces the evolution of a major industry, along with all the shifting attitudes about female beauty, workplace opportunity, and marketing and media trends that went with them.

‘WAR PAINT’

Highly recommended

When: Through Aug. 21

Where: Goodman Theatre,

170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $44 – $182

Info: (312) 443-3800;

www.GoodmanTheatre.org

Run time: 2 hours and

35 minutes with one intermission

The classic tension between career and romance faced by women hellbent on making a mark is crucial here, as is the particularly high price in loneliness paid by those who pursue the kind of success men tend to take in stride. The warping (and simultaneously inspiring) effect of cutthroat competition is in play throughout. And the matter of legacy — a big theme in “Hamilton,” too — is here very much attuned to how it plays out for women.

Patti LuPone (as cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein) is surrounded by portraits in “War Paint,” the world premiere musical at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Patti LuPone (as cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein) is surrounded by portraits in “War Paint,” the world premiere musical at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“War Paint,” inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s book of the same name, and by “The Powder & the Glory,” the documentary by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman, features a finely crafted book by Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”); a moving, richly varied score by his “Grey Gardens” partners, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, and fluid direction by Michael Greif. But of course it is the portrayal of the two powerful personalities at the show’s center that is of the essence.

Rubinstein (LuPone, whose accent gives Meryl Streep a run for her money, and whose power pipes have never sounded more glorious) is the raven-haired, highly self-dramatizing Polish Jew who escaped the shtetl but not anti-Semitism, established her business on several continents, was rejected by her husband and two sons, and was later betrayed by her gay business associate, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), who went to work for “the other woman,” as she called her rival.

Arden (Ebersole, whose creamy blonde looks are paired with an emotion-filled voice) is the farm girl from Canada who aspired to be part of the waspish horsey set of New York’s Upper East Side, but lacked the blue-blood pedigree — the woman who, when she refused to give equal billing to her husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), watched as he left her and went to work for Rubinstein.

Christine Ebersole plays Elizabeth Arden in the world premiere musical “War Paint” at the Goodman Theatre through Aug. 21. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Christine Ebersole plays Elizabeth Arden in the world premiere musical “War Paint” at the Goodman Theatre through Aug. 21. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

As legend has it, these two women, whose offices were just blocks apart in Manhattan, never met. But one of the great coups of “War Paint” (whose title also suggests how World War II influenced their businesses) is the way it enables them to share the stage for “split screen” songs, including “Face to Face” (in which each wishes she could reach out to the only other person who might understand her situation), and the haunting, pain-filled “If I’d Been a Man,” which easily could be an anthem for a certain presidential candidate of the moment. The women’s “legacy songs” also are brilliantly limned, and just as superbly performed, with Ebersole fearing she will be remembered only for her company’s color-coded packaging (“Pink”), and Rubinstein (in “Forever Beautiful”) confident that the many portraits of her by such painters as Dali, Dufy and Picasso would seal her immortality.

These songs tellingly follow one sung by Tommy and Harry, aging men who crassly dub the women “Dinosaurs” for refusing to advertise on television, and so are eclipsed by Charles Revson (Erik Liberman), the force behind Revlon. Revson understands the younger, more sexually open temper of the times and taps model Dorian Leigh (lushly pretty Steffanie Leigh) to exemplify it.

Throughout, multiple supporting roles are expertly played by Mary Ernster, David Girolmo and others, with a Goldie Hawn-like Leslie Donna Flesner as the 1960s girl in white Courreges boots. And under the expert music direction of Lawrence Yurman, the large pit orchestra does full justice to the show’s formidable score.

David Korins’ lavish movable set, lit by Kenneth Posner, ideally captures the women’s opposing styles (with a notable Plexiglass bed for Rubinstein, and the full Red Door treatment for Arden), with the posh St. Regis Hotel bar complete with Maxfield Parrish’s iconic painting. And Catherine Zuber’s costumes are a fabulous show unto themselves.

A final “imagined” encounter, with one woman using a cane and the other suffering a slight hand tremor, could not be more poignant. As they wonder if they ultimately hurt women more than they helped them, the real question becomes: Did they wound themselves more than they enjoyed their triumphs?