"War Paint" Review- A world class and world-premiere musical at The Goodman

War Paint”, now extended for a second time through August 21, opened Wednesday night July 18 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.The musical about the many years long rivalry between cosmetics giants/competitors Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, directed by Michael Grief, is a world premiere and a masterpiece of stagecraft- a vision of lights, music, sets and costumes.  Patti Lupone, it must be said, as the Polish-born titan Rubinstein, stole the show from her fellow Tony Award winning diva, Christine Ebersole as the indomitable Arden. Nobody on stage could touch LuPone, in fact, as that remarkable voice soared up and on and out, belting out the fresh tunes destined to become classics, for this production is almost certainly bound for Broadway. It need hardly be said, however, that Ebersole, and indeed, all the cast did a remarkable job singing the catchy and poignant songs.

Patti LuPone; photo courtesy of Axel Dupeux

Like most musicals, even today, the production suffers from a less than inclusive non- diverse cast and a somewhat unfinished storyline, but it delivers a lot of satisfaction and is, above all, visually diverting. This is primarily a female cast and a woman’s show. Although there are several men  in the cast, notably the two excellent male leads, John Dossett as Tommy Lewis, Arden’s husband and helpmate and Douglas Sills as Harry Fleming, initially Rubenstein’s majordomo, they are really only foils for the development of the womens’ characters. Indeed, they are ruthlessly relied upon until they make emotional or fiscal demands and are ultimately out of work and the women’s lives.

Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein

The truly unusual thing about this play is that there is no zenith, no denouement- there are just two heroic hard-working women getting older, trying to pursue their goals, keep their businesses alive, and create something lasting amid the politics and realities of their time. The audience learns of the family members possibly lost in the Second World War, and the difficult truths of life for women who wish to enter society but are "tainted" by their ethnic heritage or their nouveau riche status.

Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden

The sensational period costumes, changed often, ranged like the shades of Arden’s lipsticks, from mauve through salmon-pink. There were many resplendant and  elaborately fitted mid-calf length suits, complete with capelets trimmed with fur, and jackets lined in patterns to match blouses and collars. There were also adorable pedal-pusher/midriff blouse combinations, and dresses anyone would kill to wear today in the boardroom or to the theater.  The makeup, was of course, elaborate and transformative, as were the hairdos. The fetching and complex hats alone are worth the price of admission. The sets were literally gorgeous, taking us on a lit-up tour from The Colony Club  and Ciro’s to Arden’s Fifth Avenue salon. Thanks and kudos to Music Director/Conductor Lawrence Yurman, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Kenneth Posner and set designer David Korins.

Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein surrounded by her portraits

The most impressive scene is after the intermission, when an aging Rubinstein is faced with the need to sell off her possessions due to the incursions of a wartime economy and the competition of cheaper brands. Descending from the ceiling appear remarkably authentic-looking beautifully framed portraits of Rubenstein, which she collected in her heyday, and we are treated to a rare glimpse of this lonely woman’s lifelong desire for immortality and physical beauty.

Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein and Douglas Sills as Harry Fleming in War Paint

Since the two protagonists don’t meet until almost the very end of the 150- minute production, their relationship and parallel lives are revealed to us in clever split/stage scenes. This reviewer won't reveal the ending, but it is NOT saccharine sweet nor does it rely on easy answers. For these two larger than life women exemplified by two larger than life female singers/actors, the show must go on. See it- it’s highly recommended.

Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden and John Dossett as Tommy Lewis in War Paint


For tickets to War Paint, and other great shows at The Goodman Theatre, go to the Goodman Theatre website



Underless noted, all photos courtesy of Joan Marcus


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