Women find their empowerment in the exterior shells of their face, namely through the powder and color of make-up on their cheeks and lips.
One woman, an Elizabeth Arden perceives power in beauty and markets to the trends of a time when men run the nation. Arden compacts her products in her signature trademark pink. But intervening in her prosperity is the return of her competitor Helena Rubinstein, Patti LuPone in her delicious bombastic diva-ness, who sells on her pseudo-science of her products and the gimmick of selling “night/day” jars that have no distinction in their ingredients. Locked in competition, they ultimately become, though their tribulations, as a result of historical circumstances or their own attempts at sabotaging each other, yields swells of resentment, and even empathy, for each other’s ambitious spirits. Even in their irritation, they cannot help but to feel kinship. LuPone’s “Now You Know” is both gloating while sympathetic all at once, when she leans that Arden had been excluded by old money society.
Inspired by the Lindy Woodhead’s biography and the 2007 documentary film The Powder & the Glory, the War Paint covers the rivalry of two cosmetic titans. The book by Doug Wright contains the rich ingredients of a powerhouse bio musical, though its ingredients don’t build up to a satisfying pot, sometimes passing over its depth to invoke fascinating ideas and political concepts rather than exploring the skin-deepness of them. If anything Act I feels like a by-the-numbers set-up toward a great Act II, where the stakes and poignancy of aging beauty queens finally settles in. I question whether the musical book is simply a vehicle for duets between two stars and to show-off the glamor and gimmicks of the time period, with a sprightly, swelling score by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie.
Although the show brushes over the deep effects their work had on their women, focusing on check-listing off the episodes of their competition, LuPone and Abernole are clearly the forefront driving force of the musical. Arden and Rubinstein are two ambitious women, content to preserve their self-mythologizing American Dream spirit for their empire. Abernole and LuPone, despite never having their literal face-to-face in the musical, are a marvelous interplay.
There’s a fascinating rhetorical question Arden invokes, “Did we make slaves out of women?” contemplating the effects of make-up on the esteem and perception of women and their station in society. Arden has a poignant solo, “Pink,” where she meditates on how she’ll be only known by the gimmick of a color, though Abernole reveals both a clashing nostalgia and discontent toward the color that defined her.
War Paint closely matches the promises of its concoction. In the realm of stage, it allows a perfect set-up for them to stand (against) together in the spatial abstract of theater.
In “Beauty In the Whole,” the mythologizing is furnished with their face-to-face, a profound hypothetical of curiosity to allow an introspection of their possible feminist alliance as the anecdote to their perpetuating rivalry. The two women can’t stop trying to one-up each other, but they discover their common ground.
Their hypothetical duet regarding a non-existence meeting insists that perhaps these two competitors, like the leading LuPone and Abernole, were more compliments to each other, rather than enemies.