The Fartiste is a gas, and that isn't just hot air. With a book by Charles Schulman and a score by Michael Roberts, the musical is a surprisingly sophisticated look at the life of Joseph Pujol (1857-1945), whose fame resulted from being flatulent on cue.
Unfortunately for Le Pétomane, as patrons of the Moulin Rouge (and other venues) knew him, he saw himself as an artist, and Pujol's futile struggle for critical acceptance — and inability to master show business politics — is what propels much of the story. Less clear is the authors' attempt to make a larger point about the popular entertainments of the fin de siècle, what with can-can girls, composer Erik Satie (Tom Gamblin), and artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Mark Baker) in the mix. Aristide Bruant (Nick Wyman), who epitomized Montmartre cabaret, serves as narrator.
On the one hand, the authors' decision to think beyond a straightforward musical biography of Pujol is astute: His fame may have lasted nearly 30 years, yet he's obscure today. But their overall vision is cloudy as absinthe. Songs like "Montmartre," "Lil from Lille," and "More" (recalling the Stephen Sondheim song from Dick Tracy) are all, as staged by director John Gould Rubin and choreographer Richard Move, polished divertissements, but if book songs like "Listen With Your Eyes Closed" and "What Kind of Man Is He?" offer less joie de vivre, they do benefit from strong integration into the tale. Rubin's choice to keep actors onstage even when not in a scene is a neat Pirandellian touch.
That's one reason why The Fartiste is a gas. Another is that the scenes involving Pujol directly are written (and again, staged) so superbly. Kevin Kraft has figured out how to balance the obvious toilet humor of Pujol's act with his character's odd asceticism. And watch him mime Pujol's moves while actor Steven Scott, off to the side, offers an impressive suite of sound effects. Together, they're a rip.
Presented by Wet Knee Productions, Loose Cannon Productions, and DRD Productions in association with Diane Procter and the Drama Center as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at Henry Street Settlement's Harry de Jur Playhouse, 466 Grand St., NYC. Aug. 11-20. Casting by Stephanie Klapper.