It must have seemed an inspired idea: Cast competing divas to play the business titans who created rival women-centered businesses. And could the timing for the Broadway opening have been better? Feud, the FX series starring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and set around the making of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? has resuscitated the cat-fight genre. And so we have Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole – Evita and Little Edie in their most celebrated Broadway incarnations – portraying Polish Jewish immigrant Helena Rubinstein and Canadian WASP immigrant Elizabeth Arden, born Florence Nightingale Graham, as they battle for the cheekbones, lips and eyes – and of course, the purses – of the pampered primpers of Park Avenue.
Their business instincts were killer but the musical’s DOA, a high-stakes game of table-tennis in which every slight and triumph on Team Arden is matched by a similar one over on Team Rubinstein. It starts with the betrayal and defection of their top lieutenants: Arden’s husband and sales director Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), and Rubinstein’s trusted number two Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), both want more recognition from the boss and, failing to get it, soon switch places. (“The moment I credit you,” Arden tells Tommy, “is the moment they discredit me,” hoping to dull the sting by calling him her “secret weapon.”)
They pay equally for their success with semi-tragic loneliness and the truckling of false friends. No sooner has Rubinstein been rejected by the board of a co-op where she’s offered cash for a palatial triplex than Arden is told that she’s been rejected by an exclusive club she’s sought to buy her way into because, as her “friend” with the illustrative name Freddy Trowbridge-Phelps tells her, “for a woman to have money is one thing. But to earn it … surely you understand the distinction.” (“I do,” Arden retorts. “One is chance; the other, a mark of good character.”) The exchange is conveniently overheard by Rubinstein (the two apparently lunch regularly in the restaurant of the St. Regis hotel without ever running into one another), who gloats: “Now you know, fine lady, now I hope you know how it feels to find yourself outside.” Ping. Pong.
Rubinstein was the more “scientific” entrepreneur, pioneering the use of hormones in her creams and ointments. Arden was known for her devotion to red doors and pink everything else. Both refused to go downscale, paving the way for lesser charlatans to knock off their goods. Both see World War II, in this telling, as sales opportunities (they hardly were alone in this, which makes it no less distasteful): Rubinstein developing plastic tubes for lipstick when metals are diverted for arms; Arden inventing “leg-tan” and eyebrow-pencilled “seams” to substitute for silk and nylon. “Brains and brawn! Dusk to dawn!” they sing in their neighboring lairs. “Women win!”
Somehow this all manages to be a huge bore though not for want of trying and effortful lung power from the leads in director Michael Greif’s high-voltage production. The score, by the talented duo of Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) is as hard on the ear as the book, by their Grey Gardens colleague Doug Wright, is clunky and predictable. The Big Numbers seem equally apportioned between LuPone and Ebersole, but none of the songs achieves a necessary emotional payoff, perhaps because the authors are so intent on not letting one overshadow the other. (Adding to the muddle, LuPone’s heavy, unplaceable accent makes her frequently difficult to understand.)
All this equal-opportunity discrimination against powerful women does nothing to alleviate the abundant clichés (Rubinstein dripping with garish bling and muttering “Goyim!” in her taste-free boudoir as Arden remains coolly unflappable in her understated Chanel and discreet décor). It’s all equally luxe (the amazing sets are by David Korins, perfectly lit by Kenneth Posner; the over- and under-the top costumes are by Catherine Zuber). In the end, they agree to wonder whether their life’s work enslaved women or freed them. How much more interesting the show might have been, had that question been explored in any meaningful way. Working so hard, and so effectively, to establish equivalency in the stories of these two phenomenally successful women in the end drains War Paint of any drama.