8/23/2019 WAR PAINT Atlanta Lyric Theatre
Full Confession: I was totally prepared to thoroughly dislike this show. I found the few songs from it that crossed my path singularly dull and unengaging. I have a profound dislike of make-up on women, and a story about a feud between make-up entrepreneurs struck me as about as exciting as watching mascara melt in the sun.
And, indeed, the opening number (“Best Face Forward”) celebrates the skin-deep mindset of enhancing beauty to “keep your husband” or “attract a spouse.”
But something strange happened. Even before that opening number ended, I found myself totally engaged in the story, respectful of the score’s ability to evoke those years between the ‘30’s and the ‘60’s, and completely gob-smacked by the dialogue, the script, and, especially by the performances in the two leading roles. In a nutshell (and to my surprise), I completely loved War Paint.
So, it is the late 1930’s, and Elizabeth Arden is the reigning doyenne of New York City “Beauty Parlors.” Her husband’s genius marketing has made her “Red Door Salon” a necessity for Manhattan’s elite. When former competitor Helena Rubenstein returns to town with her “scientifically based” approach to beauty products, the war is on. Always referring to each other as “that woman,” they proceed to engage in a decades-spanning rivalry that left
husbands, children, and reputations in the dust. The irony is, they were such resourceful and powerful women – the ONLY women at the time to own and run their own companies – together they would have conquered the world. And even liked each other.
Yes, they also had to endure all he slings and arrows that the times aimed at most women of courage and power – Arden’s husband “jumps ship” when he feels underappreciated (and taunted with “Mr. Arden” once too often) and Rubenstein’s own marketing genius (who came up with the idea of packaging identical creams in “Daytime Formula” and “Nighttime Formula” containers) goes over to Arden for similar reasons. Add the fact that both women come from working class backgrounds, and despite their power and riches, they are excluded from the highest halls (and clubs) of the Manhattan Power Elite. Rubenstein, in fact, is barred from purchasing a Park Avenue penthouse because of her Jewish background. (She gets the last laugh by buying the entire building).
And, through it all, their fortunes rise and fall in tandem – almost in lock step – as they blithely navigate the forces and trends of twentieth century history – the wars, the fads, the trends, the competitors. But, eventually, they run smack into what they’ve been selling all along—youth. Even the dinosaurs were finally replaced by those upstart mammals.
Oh, be sure, even now their legacy lives on – Rubenstein’s company is owned by L’Oreal and her charitable foundation lasted well into this century. Elizabeth Arden Inc still runs the Red Door Salons in dozens of cities around the world. And, of course, their rivalry lives on in the 2009 PBS documentary The Powder and the Glory as well as in War Paint.
This is an intensely well-produced show, with Stephanie Polhemus’ art-Deco-inspired set spanning every inch of the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, with Ben Rawson’s lights personalizing the worlds of the two women (Sky Blue for Rubinstein, and Signature Pink for Arden), with Daniel Barr’s costumes elegantly keeping us cued into the passage of time, and with George Deavours’ wigs keeping both ladies showing the “correct” (if enhanced) stage of life.
But this show belongs to its leading ladies, Mary Nye Bennett as Rubinstein and Pamela Gold as Arden. Each creates an indelible character, each ages convincingly, and both have strong Broadway belt voices that never miss a note or a beat. Ms. Bennett even convincingly adopts an Eastern-European accent and remains completely understandable. They are given numerous opportunities to duet (in spite of the fact that, in real life, the two women never actually met*) and their voices blend so beautifully they sound like one. These are two remarkable performances and they are fully responsible for me finally appreciating this score.
In support are Lowrey Brown as Tommy Lewis (Arden’s showgirl-loving husband) and Brian Kurlander as Harry Fleming (Rubenstein’s sailor-loving Marketing Manager). The two men are a study in contrasts and beautifully offset the drive of their bosses. A large ensemble fills the stage, all of them putting on more than one face as the small characters along the way, and, to be sure, where these women are concerned EVERYONE else is a “small character.” In particular, Luis R. Hernandez does some outstanding work as Charles Revson, a smarmy little man who would go on to create Revlon and his own make-up empire.
Music Director Bethany Irby keeps the score stylish and rich, her large(ish) pit band never overpowering the cast, and Lauren Brooke Tatum keeps the choreography elegant and simple. Susan G. Reid directs with a sure hand and a quick pace.
So, I have to ask, is there any theatrical pleasure more satisfying than the surprising downfall of low exceptions? Judging from War Paint, I’d say it’s at least one of the “Top Three!” I still hate make-up (especially bright red lipstick – it makes me shudder), and I probably will never want to listen to any of these songs out of context, though it’s definitely on my list of shows to enjoy “in their splendid totality.” To be sure, there is nothing like a strong script about strong women with strong voices to grab at me, and there is nothing like a strong story to engage me, even if it’s about a subject for which I have less than a passing interest.
Call it the Surprising Depth of the Skin-Deep Subject Matter!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #altWarPaint)
* Librettist Doug Wright does concoct a late-in-the-show meeting and it’s a scene of beauty and a joy to behold.