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Patti LuPone And Christine Ebersole Bring The Beauty To 'War Paint'

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 20, 2016 6:08PM

The Goodman's production of 'War Paint.'

At age 13, lipstick was not my friend. I couldn’t navigate eyeliner or even braid my hair convincingly. Eventually, I learned about makeup, largely thanks to a neighbor’s subscription to Seventeen. Yet long before I— or my mom, for that matter—picked up an eyelash curler, women learned about beauty through Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.

These two titans of the beauty industry, household names during their heyday in the mid-20th century, were innovative, ambitious, flawed, and locked in a bitter rivalry depicted in the Goodman’s star-studded War Paint. The musical, helmed by multi-Tony-winning Broadway greats Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, tracks the women’s careers and competing business endeavors, building a story around women who leaned in long before anyone Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase. They devoted themselves to their namesake beauty companies, their customers and their products—and, as a result, to reimagined notions of success.

The formidable LuPone is fitting as Rubinstein, a tough, wisecracking Krakow native whose hardscrabble youth fuels her desire for success. Arden, on the other hand, is more Upper East Side than Eastern Europe, portrayed in all of her prim-and-pink glory by the winning Christine Ebersole. As the musical opens, we meet both in their dressing rooms, singing knowingly about “A Woman’s Face” while starting in on their own ritualistic beauty regimens. The whole show is structured much like this song, with the women's lives unfolding in parallel. While the setup helps reinforce the fact that the two never actually meet during the height of their rivalry, it soon feels clunky and tiring.

The structural problems aren’t helped by the musical’s sheer quantity of music, either—most of the songs (by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie) are serviceable but not memorable. While surely the creative team, led by prolific Broadway director Michael Greif, wanted to make the most of their powerhouse leading ladies, the show jumps from song to song without pausing, leaving rich thematic material under-explored. At the end of the first act, for example, both Rubinstein and Arden are facing the wrath of the FDA and an unrelenting press, realizing that they share a common enemy. Yet in the second act, the concerns over the FDA fall away, and the two never team up in the way that the audience expects. In another scene, Arden counsels a young woman (an early collaborator on the Revlon brand) to find success without her boyfriend and business partner, but this moment of mentorship is fleeting and ultimately falls flat.

While Rubinstein and Arden taught countless women the ways of makeup—and pioneered early business ideas around branding, packaging and product marketing—no amount of concealer could hide the fact that they simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) keep up with the times. In fact, the only thing that they want is to keep up with was each other, waging small-scale battles for market dominance without realizing the larger war on the horizon. War Paint meanders a bit before coming to this conclusion, but the final impact is one that resonates with the go-getter in all of us.

The show runs through Sunday, Aug. 21 at the Goodman, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800 or online.