Review: War Paint (Goodman Theatre)

| August 2, 2016

Patti LuPone sings Forever Beautiful in War Paint, Goodman Theatre          
War Paint       

Doug Wright (book) Scott Frankel (music)
   and Michael Korie (lyrics)
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
thru Aug 21  |  tix: $44-$182  | more info
Check for half-price tickets   


A showcase for two virtually perfect musical theater stars


Patti LuPone sings Forever Beautiful in War Paint, Goodman Theatre

Goodman Theatre presents
War Paint

Review by John Olson

If the idea of two divas playing fierce business competitors sounds irresistible to you, War Paint may not be exactly what you’re expecting. Though Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole compete onstage for your love and attention, writers Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie have taken a less expected and more thoughtful turn with this musical comedy dual biography of cosmetics magnates Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. No catfights here in the style of Dynasty’s Alexis and Krystle Carrington – in fact, the two heroines don’t meet until the very end and never refer to each other by name. We don’t even see any juicy corporate sabotage or espionage (they Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden in War Paint, Goodman Theatredo hire away each other’s right hand man, but only after the men have had a falling out with the boss). Instead, bookwriter Wright makes the case the two had much in common. Both were pioneering women executives in the male-dominated business world, where they faced similar challenges – from government regulation to the changes in the marketplace as commerce became increasingly mass market in the early years of television. Might they have been friends had they ever tried? Intentionally or not, they were sisters of a sort.

Not to say War Paint has much resemblance to that hugely successful fairy tale of sisterhood, Wicked. Wright’s script, inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s biographical book “War Paint” and a documentary film by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman called “The Powder and the Glory,” is firmly grounded in reality and much of it could serve as a business school case study. We see Helena and Elizabeth as pioneers of branding – with Arden frequently spending more on the elegant packaging of her products than on the products themselves. They believed higher price added value to their products and, in their salons, delivered an overall pampering experience that was as important as the physical product. They both rebuffed the young Charles Revson when he came to them with an idea for a line of lower priced nail polishes and lipsticks that would be mass marketed under a company name Revlon.

Is this the stuff of traditional musical theater values – wildly entertaining, emotionally engaging material that provides a visceral thrill? Not really, but there’s much to like and enjoy. The two starring divas don’t disappoint. LuPone is the Polish-born Rubinstein, who still has a thick Eastern-European accent. Determined, feisty and rather unconcerned about people liking her, Rubinstein makes a great musical theater character and Frankel and Korie have given songs that suit LuPone’s signature belting vocal style. Ever the good sport, LuPone has her hair pulled tightly back and her face so heavily made up as to suggest Rubinstein was hiding something. Ebersole’s numbers are designed to showcase her prettier and more delicate voice. She’s an elegant but determined Arden, but as Wright has written her – a less quirky character and thus a less showy role than Rubinstein. The two actresses have 14 songs each, so there’s ample opportunity to enjoy their vocal talents.

Christine Ebersole and John Dossett in War Paint, Goodman TheatrePatti LuPone and Douglas Sills in War Paint, Goodman Theatre

Ebersole and LuPone are well backed up by supporting actors John Dossett and Douglas Sills. Dossett is Tommy Lewis, the husband Arden divorces who joins Rubinstein’s enemy camp. Sills is the closeted gay marketing guru who Rubinstein fires over his sexual indiscretions. Both Dossett and Sills are some of the top singing actors on Broadway, and though they’re not exactly showcased – their only big number is a duet called “Dinosaurs” in which they lament their unimportance – they still complement the two female leads admirably. The ensemble is mostly female, with the actress playing beauty technicians, salon patrons and others, and of that group Leslie Donna Flesner has a standout character bit as well meaning but ditsy woman of the 1960’s. There’s also a trio of men in the ensemble who also handle character roles, including Chicago’s David Girolmo as the US Senator who investigates the cosmetics industry, Erik Liberman as Charles Revson and Chris Hoch as Hal March (host of the TV game show “The $64,000 Question”).

Frankel’s score ranges from jazzy, period-sounding pieces from the ‘30s and World War II eras, to a more generic show tune sound for the later years; Korie’s lyrics are sharp and witty. It’s all beautifully orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin, wit a rich, full-sounding 13-piece orchestra led by Lawrence Yurman.

The production design is gorgeous, as it must be for a show about the glamour industry. David Korins’ set uses a back wall of hundreds of bottle of cosmetics as realistic set pieces roll on and off. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are spectacular, capturing Fifth Avenue glamour from the 1930s Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein in War Paint, Goodman Theatreto the 1960s. David Brian Brown created the hair styling reflecting the changing tastes of these mid-20th century decades and Angelina Avallone contributed makeup designs worthy of the title characters.

Director Michael Greif, who worked with this same writing team on Grey Gardens (their musical that won a Tony for Ebersole), has offered up a mixed bag on this project. Big stretches are fairly static, with a number of scenes involving Rubinstein or Arden sitting at a desk while Tommy or Harry pace anxiously around them. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli contributes just a few production numbers, but they’re good ones. After a prologue in which Rubinstein and Arden sing “A Woman’s Face,” we move into a bright and funny number — the true opening number, I would contend, called “Behind the Red Door.” Establishing the world and the experience of Arden’s “Red Door” salon, it’s bathed in Arden’s trademark pink. It may remind fans of old movie musicals or Kay Thompson’s “Think Pink” number from Funny Face. The second act opener is the title song “War Paint,” done as a call to arms for the World War II era, complete with dancers in the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” costume. There’s also a faux TV commercial for Revlon – a song called “Fire and Ice,” that’s a stunner bathed in deep red and black, enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s lighting design.

Mostly, though, War Paint is a more character-driven, intimate musical composed largely of two-person scenes. In further developing this work – which certainly has Broadway aspirations – the writers might want to build up the emotional component. As it stands, though, it’s a fun and perfectly good vehicle for two virtually perfect musical theater stars.

Rating: ★★★½

War Paint continues through August 21st at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Tuesdays & Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm & 7:30pm.  Tickets are $44-$182, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes an intermission)

Christine Ebersole sings Pink in War Paint, Goodman Theatre

Photos by Joan Marcus




Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein), Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden), John Dossett (Tommy Lewis), Douglas Sills (Harry Fielding), Mary Ernster (The Society Doyenne, Rubinstein Beauty Technician, Mrs. Trowbridge-Phelps, others), Barbara Marineau (The Grand Dame, Rubinstein Beauty Technician, others), Joanna Glushak (The Countess, Beatrice Gould, Rubinstein Beauty Technician, Magda, others), Angel Reda (The Heiress, Arden Girl, Rubinstein Beauty Technician, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mss Smythe, others), Leslie Donna Flesner (Arden Girl, Miss Teale, Tulip, others), Mary Claire King (Arden Girl, Miss Beam, others), Steffanie Leigh (Arden Girl, Dorian Leigh, others), Stephanie Jae Park (Arden Girl, Rubinstein Beauty Technician, others), David Girolmo (Freddy, Raoul Dufy, Senator Royal Copeland, William S. Paley, Mr. Levin), Erik Liberman (Charles Revson, Auctioneer, others), Chris Hoch (Court Officer, Mr. Simms, Mr. Baruch, others), Barbara Jo Bednarczuk, Patti Cohenour, Tom Galantich, Joy Hermalyn, Rod Thomas (understudies)


Lawrence Yurman (music director, conductor), Paul Staroba (asst. conductor, keyboard), Austin Cook (keyboard), Dominic Trumfio, Michael Favreau, Matthew Wifler (reeds), Heather Boehm (violin), Mark Lekas (cello), Matt Comerford, B.J. Levy (trumpets), Sharon Jones (French horn), Michael Joyce (trombone), Jeremy Attanaseo (bass), Phil Martin (drums, percussion)

behind the scenes

Michael Greif (director), Christopher Gattelli (choreographer), Lawrence Yurman (music director), David Korins (set design), Catherine Zuber (costume design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), Brian Ronan (sound design), David Brian Brown (hair design), Angelina Avallone (makeup design), Bruce Coughlin (orchestrations), Scott Frankel (voice and dance arrangements), Tripp Phillips (production stage manager), Kathleen Petroziello, Alden Vasquez (stage managers); Adam Belcuore, Erica Sartini-Combs, Craig Burns, Telsey + Company (casting), Heather Boehm (music contractor), Barbara Jo Bednarczuk (dance captain), Jonathan L. Green (dramaturg), Johanna McKeon (asst. director), Mark Myars (asst. choreographer), Paul Staroba (asst. music director, asst. conductor), Deborah Hecht (voice and dialect coach), Emily Grishman, Katharine Edmonds (music copying), Eli Newell (literary assistant), Vinny Stodder (music assistant), Rod Lemmond (asst. set designer), Ryan Park (associate costume designer), Wilberth Gonzalez, Elivia Bovenzi (asst. costume design), Paul Toben (associate lighting design), Greg Hofmann (asst. lighting designer), Cody Spencer (asst. sound design), Joan Marcus (photos)


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Category: 2016 Reviews, Goodman Theatre, John Olson, Musical, New Work, World Premier

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