A little more oomph, and pleasant, peculiar musical could be a gas

Posted: April 11, 2011

Some people keep their assets in the bank, some hide them under the bed. Joseph Pujol never tucked away his greatest assets anywhere. He made a name for himself by letting them all out.

That name, his stage name, says it all: Le Petomane, literally French for a flatulence maniac, or more loosely, a champion farter. Now, I know what many of you are saying: Wow, that could be me! Well, yes and no. You may have the talent. But Joseph Pujol made money from it.

Pujol was so good at it - he was able to be orchestral, even though he played only a wind instrument - that the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts is celebrating his brief renown with the world premiere of an agreeable musical called A Passing Wind through April 17 at the Kimmel Center.

The book, pleasant music, and smart lyrics are by Seth Rozin, head of the city's InterAct Theatre, with extra lyrics by David Goldstein. Rozin also directs. He's a busy guy; another of his plays, Two Jews Walk into a War, is in previews at InterAct and opens Wednesday night.

A Passing Wind, like Pujol, is a curiosity, a chamber musical about a man who is a footnote in arts history. Pujol neatly fills the bill of the international festival, which celebrates Paris a century ago. The city was energized at that time by art, intellectual pursuit, and novelty, and Pujol was cutting his French mustard to wild applause at the Moulin Rouge and, after that, in his own theater.

I enjoyed A Passing Wind - how can you poo-poo a show that seizes the characters of Sigmund Freud (the excellent Tim Moyer), actress Sarah Bernhardt (Maureen Torsney-Weir), artist Claude Monet (Peter Schmitz), and composer Erik Satie (Jered McLenigan) and sets them about making so many fart references, you can't keep track of the count?

I wish the show had a bit more of the force that Pujol gave his toots. It lacks any big, galvanizing "I want . . . !" song at the moment that Pujol (gamely played and well sung by Damon Kirsche) decides to move his wife (Leah Walton) and sons from their bakery in the provinces to the lights of Paris because of the swelling within him to stage his sulfuric soliloquies. After just a few words, Pujol arrives at the doorstep of the Moulin Rouge with a passion that he has not shared.

Too bad, because instead of being on his side, we're more in tune with Bernhardt, Monet, and Satie, who sing clearly of their contempt for Pujol and his airy proclivities.

A Passing Wind sometimes ambles when it should be trotting. On opening night Friday, it lagged particularly in the first act, which included off-a-beat scene changes.

(The show needed at least a single preview performance to firm its footing, but didn't have one.)

Satie is played annoyingly as some fey effete, while Monet and Bernhardt have no distinct personalities. Not so for the Moulin Rouge owner and his wife, played by Ian Bedford and Laura Catlaw. Their comic exasperation announces This Show is Fun! This Show is About Farting!

As the run moves forward, perhaps A Passing Wind will pick up the pace and, with it, the spirit, and become more than a diversion. I chuckled for sure, but wanted to burst out. In laughter, I mean.


A Passing Wind

Presented by the Kimmel Center as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, at the center's Innovation Studio, 260 S. Broad St., through April 17. Tickets: $15-$29. Information: 215-546-7432 or www.pifa.org.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

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