Yesterday I entered the War Paint lottery on a whim, since I was entering a bunch of other lotteries, and I didn’t really expect to win. I didn’t even know what the show was about when I put my name in. I think I had some vague notions of an actual war, but that is not what this show is about at all. It is in fact using “war paint” as a euphemism for makeup to tell the story of rivals Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
Historically speaking, this was an intriguing story. I had no idea Arden had had any kind of rivalry with anyone, and I’d never even heard of Rubinstein (apparently what was left of her company ended up being owned by L’Oreal). According to the Playbill, the show tried to be as historically accurate as possible, with the exception of a condensed timeline, and so it was fascinating to witness the rise and fall of these two giants of industry.
What was not fascinating was the musical itself. The music carried certain hints and flavors of 40s tunes that I like, but otherwise it was forgettable and uninspired. I don’t think there’s a single song that has stuck with me (I mean, maybe Fire and Ice?). Staging was quite basic as well.
Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden did fine, though she didn’t wow me. I did very much enjoy Patti Lupone as Helena Rubinstein, however. She was given most of the comedic lines, which she delivered fantastically. I actually found myself much more invested in the spoken dialogue than in any of the music. John Dossett and Douglas Sills as Tommy Lewis and Harry Fleming were practically indistinguishable, though perhaps that was intentional. The rest of this small cast didn’t have very much to do, so there were no particular standouts.
And, not to go into some heavy discourse here, but the hodgepodge mix of varying feminisms was somewhat jarring. Makeup was praised “war paint” and talked about as if it was the one thing that could raise a woman up. “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” Helena Rubinstein famously said. In the show Rubinstein also muses on her own unusual beauty: her dark hair, her Slavic nose, and insists this is what makes her unique. In one touching moment, she reads a letter from a girl who wonders why she is still ugly after using makeup. Arden and Rubinstein also frequently muse on their roles as women in a man’s world. Through it all runs the thread of makeup as empowering and improving lives.
Then, at the very end of the show, when Arden and Rubinstein finally talk to each other, Arden wonders, “Did we free [women] or enslave them?” Yet this throwaway line, sung somewhat abruptly in the final song, feels like an afterthought, tossed in just to satisfy those who might raise issue with the portrayal of makeup. It is certainly never given appropriate weight, or even appropriate time. One the one hand I understand this decision given that the story is, after all, about two women who pioneered the makeup industry. On the other hand, if that line about enslaving women was going to be included, I would have liked to have seen some more foreshadowing of it throughout the rest of the show.
Overall, I didn’t love this, but I didn’t dislike it either. I certainly enjoyed the show as a learning experience and Patti Lupone is a master at delivering comedic beats. But would I recommend it? Not really.