Madame: Helena Rubinstein in America

Cabaret
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Editorial Review

Fringe review: 'Madame: Helena Rubinstein in America'
By Celia Wren
Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A little primping -- a dab of radiance-renewing serum, an exfoliating scrub -- will not suffice. With stiff dialogue, disjointed storytelling, awkward pauses, multiple wooden acting turns and -- ouch! -- off-key singing, the original musical “Madame: Helena Rubinstein in America” needs an extreme makeover.

The creators of this Capital Fringe Festival show deserve credit for spotting promising historical material. Collaborators Jo Denver (book and lyrics) and Don Woodward (lyrics, music and direction) have seized on the interesting saga of Rubinstein, a Polish-born cosmetics tycoon who came to the United States by way of Australia, where she had successfully marketed moisturizers to sun-seared women. Rubinstein was a savvy businesswoman and steely pragmatist -- “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” she famously quipped -- and she nursed a celebrated rivalry with Elizabeth Arden.

So a dramatized version of the story should, by rights, speak of evolving opportunities for women in modern times, the triumph of a marketing culture, humanity’s obsession with image and other resonant matters. Alas, the clumsy execution of this bio-musical largely obscures such themes. Woodward’s cabaret-style songs are pleasant enough, but the seemingly under-rehearsed cast seems ill-equipped to deliver them. The lurching book includes some fun anecdotes (the account of Rubinstein showering Fifth Avenue with perfume vials attached to balloons, for instance), but while dwelling at length on Rubinstein’s famously rocky marriage to journalist Edward Titus, writer Denver manages to make that marriage seem dull.

Actress Stefanie Garcia contributes a confident portrait of the stylish Arden, but the other performances -- including Genevieve James’s monotonously shrewish Rubinstein -- are stilted. Maybe with another draft, and another production, Denver and Woodward can turn “Madame” around. At the moment, the show is less theatrical, and less appealing, than a stroll down the makeup aisle at CVS.