The Fartiste: Art Isn't Easy
I suppose most people presented with the opportunity to attend a musical based on the true story of a man who made his living by farting for audiences would have one of two reactions: either "What a terrible idea for a musical. I don't want to see that," or "What a terrible idea for a musical. I gotta see if they can make it work."
Sure, I'm attracted to off-beat ideas and will always lean a little on the side of authors, especially musical theatre authors, who tackle difficult subjects. But the problem with The Fartiste is that Charles Schulman (book) and Michael Roberts (music and lyrics) never go beyond the obvious and the resulting musical is unimaginative, heartless and just not funny.
Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with fart jokes. The subject demands them. But you can't expect audiences to sit through them for an hour and forty five minutes without wanting something a bit more clever or, at the very least, a reason to like the central character.
Let's backtrack a little. Frenchman Joseph Pujol became the overnight sensation of the 1890's Moulin Rouge with an act that demonstrated his unique ability to produce a variety of sounds from his rear end. It seems he was born with the capability to suck an enormous amount of air into his anus and could control his intestines and sphincter to release it, odorlessly, as an assortment of imitations. "A bride on her wedding night" would be represented as a high-pitched squeak . For "the same woman the next morning" he'd produce a raspy sound.Other sounds included "a dressmaker tearing calico" and, of course, a shooting cannon. His act convulsed people with such uncontrollable laughter that women were known to faint and it was rumored that one man dropped dead. After several clashes with management, Pujol left the Moulin Rouge to open his own Theatre Pompadour where he'd perform what he felt to be a more refined version of his act, involving poetry and impersonations of barnyard animals. A combination of the novelty wearing off and the heartbreak of having two of his sons seriously wounded in World War I (while another was taken prisoner) prompted Pujol to retire from show biz until his death in 1945. Schulman is credited with writing the "original story" of The Fartiste and in his telling Pujol's career ends because of his insistence in performing a more artistic act, including a farted concerto, which bored his fans.
If the authors were to present this tale as farce, they need much more wit than is demonstrated here.Though the story is certainly attention-grabbing, the mean-spirited dialogue, sophomoric jokes and serviceable lyrics that keep making predictable flatulence references turn this into a one-joke show where the audience already knows the joke before walking into the theatre. If they want us to feel for Pujol, which seems to be their intention, they have to give us more than the underwritten prig that Kevin Kraft is made to play. Arrogant and cold, he claims to be devoted to his family but we never see any warmth in the scenes with his wife (Rebecca Kupka). Both sing well, but Kraft's performance is hampered by a stiff characterization and Kupka's role is a cardboard cutout of the simple wife who only wishes for a normal life. In the final song the company honors Pujol as a man who believed in himself and pursued his dream against the odds, but this inspirational tag is has little to do with anything that preceded it.
Time that could have been spent developing some empathy for the lead is instead devoted to many plot-stopping songs for secondary characters. Though Nick Wyman is delightfully nasty and in strong voice as the wisecracking emcee and Lyn Philistine sizzles as the sexpot singer who can kick up a mean can-can, their extraneous material overshadows the story. The same goes for Mark Baker, who is given the unfortunate task of walking on his knees to play Toulouse Lautrec. (I would assume no self-respecting little person would want to play this insulting caricature that is only there to be the subject of syphilitic dwarf jokes.)
Roberts' music is quite tuneful and enjoyable, though his ballads get a little sappy. John Baxindine's splendid orchestrations for a six piece ensemble supply an atmosphere suggesting the remnants of lost glory. Director John Gould Rubin's production is in concert form with chairs moved about on a bare stage. The proceedings liven up considerably when choreographer Richard Move's charismatic quartet of can-can dancers (Molly Curry, Rachel Kopf, Lindsay K. Northen and Charly Seamon) break into their leggy routines, though I could have done without the simulated fellatio.
The real star of The Fartiste, however, is Steven Scott, who spends much of the show standing at a microphone far stage right using his mouth the provide whatever sounds are needed. Not just an assortment of farts, but also seaside breezes, a baby gurgling, barnyard animals, trumpets blowing and a whole damn concerto. His performance is far more interesting than anything else in the production. Perhaps the way to go with The Fartiste is to center it all around him.
Photos by Monique Carboni: Top: Charly Seamon, Jim Corti and Kevin KraftBottom: Mark Baker and Nick Wyman