Decades before girl power was en vogue—or in the American vernacular—the idea of more than one queen bee at the top of any field was shunned. That’s why female rivalries between powerful women during the first half of the 20th century were common, even expected. The film industry had Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford, fashion had Coco Chanel vs. Elsa Schiaparelli, and the world of cosmetics was divided between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.
The latter two are the topic of Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright’s world premiere “War Paint,” inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s book of the same name and the documentary “The Powder & The Glory.” The stage production at the Goodman Theatre is directed by Michael Greif and stars first ladies of theater Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, who have two Tonys—each. As anticipated, their powerful presence and ability to belt out tunes (nearly nonstop during the two-and-half-hour musical by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie) is worth the price of admission.
LuPone physically and spiritually embodies the diminutive and driven Polish immigrant Rubinstein with chutzpah and humor, while Ebersole colors the aging Canadian-born Arden with timeless relevance, particularly in her “Pink”number. Not to be outdone, LuPone follows with her moving “Forever Beautiful” solo.
With stars of this caliber, it’s easy to see why each is given equal time. Yet the play’s back-and-forth pace tends more to plateau than create an exciting push-and-pull tension. Fortunately, this Broadway-bound show offers more than enough good stuff to keep audiences engaged. In addition to the sublime leads, supporting actors John Dossett and Douglas Sills are spot-on, as are Catherine Zuber’s luxurious period costumes, Bruce Coughlin’s first-rate orchestrations, and the elegant and efficient set design of David Korins.
Of course, there’s also an amazing story about two legendary women whose fierce rivalry motivated them to achieve unprecedented success in a time when women were perceived as the weaker sex and weren’t even given bank loans. Born within six days (and five years) of one another, the obsessive opponents were clearly cut from the same cloth—devoting themselves to their legacies: Arden’s Red Door is still a strong brand today, and Rubinstein’s scholarships supported artists long after her death.
Ambitious in nature, the play spans from the 1930s to the ’60s—covering the outbreak of World War II, congressional hearings, the onset of television, and the marketing shift from targeting makeup to older and plainer women to a beautiful, youthful demographic. These factual benchmarks culminate in a fictional finale where the rivals meet and contemplate whether their entrepreneurial cosmetic dynasties did more to empower or enslave women. This point, as well as the overall premier premiere and standout performances by LuPone and Ebersole, make “War Paint” a must-see for women of all ages.
“War Paint” performs through Aug. 21 at Goodman Theatre in Chicago. For tickets and more information, visit GoodmanTheatre.org/WarPaint.