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Madame: Helena Rubinstein in America

By • Jul 18th, 2012 • Category: Fringe, Reviews
Madame: Helena Rubinstein in America
Fourpence Theatre
B103 – at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church (900 Massachusetts Ave NW DC)
Through July 24th
55 minutes
Reviewed July 17th, 2012

The core of Madame, a one-act musical by Jo Denver and Don Woodward, is the rivalry between two cosmetics entrepreneurs of the early-mid 20th century, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Stephanie Garcia, as Arden, is the show’s standout, establishing the insecurity as well as the arrogance of her character and contributing some strong vocals. As Rubenstein, Genevieve James emphasizes her character’s oddities, including a heavy accent that is more evident in her spoken than in her sung lines. The two combine in one of the show’s more dramatically successful musical numbers, in which they agree that their rivalry makes each of them better.

The show’s weak point, in terms both of writing and performance, revolves around Rubenstein’s troubled relationship with her husband, Edward. He is written as a rather self-pitying sort, consoling himself with drink and hookers for what he sees as his wife’s neglect of him, all of which does not make him a particularly interesting character. In the role, Richard Owens is weak vocally and suffers from pitch uncertainties, detracting from a lengthy solo in which he laments that his wife is more interested in her business than in him (seemingly a sound choice on Rubenstein’s part).

Brandon Mitchell is an effective companion to Arden, showing a nice sense of irony to match Arden’s ego and intensity. The ensemble women have fun with a couple of trios, one involving a musical makeover of a Vogue reporter (Saalika Khan), the other — rather superfluous to the plot and themes of the show — involving three cheerful prostitutes cavorting with Edward. (I know musicals are not a realistic medium, but I often wonder why prostitutes in musicals are so frequently either cheerful or soulful.) In some ensemble numbers, the actors struggle to stay in tune with one another.

Jan Bevan’s costume design is varied, colorful, and effective, allowing for the quick changes the ensemble members must make. The show is mounted in the tiny B103 space in the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church, despite which choreographer Walid Chaya manages to introduce a fair amount of movement into the proceedings. Accompanist Amy Conley provides excellent keyboard work throughout, including some pleasant renditions of standards as pre-show music.

According to the program, the show was workshopped in New York in 2009; it retains the feel of a work in progress. As the play is developed further, it is interesting to think about making its main point even more explicitly the romance of business. As contemporary sagas of the electronic industry (e.g., The Social Network) illustrate, stories of this kind can provide good entertainment.

Reimagining the show to be the separate, but intersecting, stories of both women, and how they came from different places to achieve spectacular success in an era in which female entrepreneurs were uncommon — perhaps even changing the title to reflect that it’s not just Rubenstein’s show — could be a promising next step. It could also help to deemphasize the Helena/Edward thread and to flesh out Helena’s character so that she becomes more than a collection of quirks. All this said, one of the pleasures of attending Fringe is to see not only where a show is today, but to imagine where it might go in the future, and this is a pleasure that fans of musicals can derive from Madame.

Cast

  • Jeremy/Ensemble: Brandon Mitchell
  • Ensemble: Caroline O’Grady
  • Madame Helena Rubinstein: Genevieve James
  • Gloria, Ensemble, Costume Design: Jen Bevan
  • Titus/Ensemble: Richard Owens
  • Reporter/Ensemble: Saalika Khan
  • ASM, Lighting: Samantha Figueira
  • Elizabeth Arden: Stefanie Garcia

Production Staff

  • Composer/Director: Don Woodward
  • Choreographer: Jo Denver
  • Accompanist: Amy Conley
  • Stage Manager: Lisa K. Blythe

Disclaimer: Capital Fringe provided one complimentary media ticket to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

One Response »

  1. I liked the review, overall. I might suggest, however, that the song sung by Titus (Mr. Owens) was probably sung in the manner it was in order to be as true to the character (weak and “off-key” in the character’s personal life) as possible. As such, Owens…whom I have heard sing well before….is to be commended for holding to the intent of the author even in the music.