Fourpence Theatre, an ensemble group dedicated to “works that explore the lives of unique, female American icons” is presenting their inaugural work, Madame: Helena Rubinstein in America at Fringe this summer.
It’s a musical celebrating the American cosmetic giant and Elizabeth Arden’s greatest rival. Madame hits the major biographic details of a thirty-year span but centers around her competition with Arden and the conclusion of her first marriage to an American.
With a cabaret feel, the piece moves briskly from Rubinstein’s early days in America to her triumphant move to 5th Avenue after World War II. As Madame, actress Genevieve James crackled with power, confidence, and a dose of ruthlessness. Her intensity was fantastic, her strength, palpable. Arden was tackled with a comparable, yet more reserved focus by Stefanie Garcia. The two women didn’t share the stage; they circled, pushed and pulled for their very own piece of it. It took no imagination to see how significant their rivalry actually was.
The rest of the ensemble handled their parts well, dancing and shimmying around the stage (more on the staging later). All were capable actors and dancers yet the singing often seemed to be a little off the mark.
So, what’s not to like? Unfortunately, the show did not appear to be blocked or choreographed for a thrust stage. Sitting on the far side of stage right, there were scenes that unfolded in front of me in which I was completely unable to see characters, full scenes went by as I stared at actors’ backs. This would not have been an issue had they been upstaged for only a moment or two, but it was a chronic matter. Every ensemble dance number was directed exclusively down stage, which meant I rarely made sense of the choreography and completely missed the makeover during the big “makeover” number.
Also distracting was the moment James stepped out in a dress dripping with untrimmed threads. Madame would never have been caught dead being upstaged in such an atrocity, and neither should James.
I wanted to like Madame yet my total inability to see faces, choreography, and conversations for much of the 60 minutes left me frustrated and frankly, very annoyed. This problem drained some of the punch out of the performance, for me, deflating an already weak storyline.
Musicals don’t have to have awesome, nail-biting plots, but there should be enough conflict to keep an audience engaged. At no fault of the performers, the weak book did not match the strong personalities it featured. When Madame and her husband separated, I didn’t care; they were never depicted as in love in the first place. Similarly, the Arden/Rubinstein rivalry felt one-dimensional.
There was so much spice to be mined from the lives and personalities of these incredible women, yet the book opted for broad, brush strokes. Perhaps the musical was more compelling for the audience seated downstage, but from my side of the room, the experience was tedious. I’m sorry, Madame, but maybe it’s your book that needs the makeover.
Madame: Helena Rubinstein in America has 5 performances, ending July 24, 2012, at B103 at Mt Vernon United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC
Details and tickets
Rebekah rates this 3 out of a possible 5.