Musical numbers: “The Honor of the Family,” “Can Can,” “The Child Inside the Man,” “Questions,” “Painting,” “Let’s Drink,” “Love Is a Pain,” “When You Love Me,” “The Exhibition,” “How Many Days?”, “Doing It,” “Dance,” “Souvenirs of Second Best,” “Me and You,” “Look Into My Eyes,” “Let Him Be Free Now.”
The moulin isn’t the only thing likely to be rouge once London critics have laid waste to “Lautrec,” as they will surely do; the producers may well end up seeing red — not least financially — as well. Boasting the silliest come-on line in years (“Enjoy a little decadence!” exclaims the ad), “Lautrec” doesn’t seem louche so much as simply passe, a throwback to the sort of anodyne biomusical that the genre has moved beyond. What does that portend for “Napoleon ,” a second show about a physically challenged Frenchman that has already booked the “Lautrec” playhouse, the Shaftesbury, for an October opening? Qui sait? What’s clear at present is that “Lautrec” will have to rely on the remnants of a dwindling carriage trade if it’s to have a shelf life any longer than your average baguette.
The uphill struggle faced by the show is a shame in some ways, since “Lautrec” as a production is no cut-and-paste job. Much care and thought have gone into the ace physical design of Robert Jones (sets and costumes) and the inestimable Peter Mumford (lighting), the second of whom apprenticed in the art of ravishing the eye — even as one’s ear began to ache — when he lit (beautifully) the short-lived 1997 musical “Always,” about Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson. From this show’s almost Edward Gorey-esque opening tableau onward, the designers display a confidence that their collaborators elsewhere would be well advised to heed. After all, it’s not often that the drapery continues sumptuously moving while the show itself stands still.
If “Lautrec” were a dumb show, all might be well: As the first full musical score of veteran singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour, it possesses its own distinctively Gallic tristesse. The second act gets off to a rousing start with “The Souvenirs of Second Best,” an entertainingly growly tribute to life’s abandoned females, followed by the jaunty “Me and You” for two couples including the well-born Henri (played by Sevan Stephan) and his beloved lower-class Suzanne (Hannah Waddingham).
Near the end, in the most fluent passages of a staging to indicate just how far Rob Bettinson has come since he first directed “Buddy,” Aznavour saves his most affecting music for some melancholy underscoring: The tempo becomes a waltz , and before long a deranged and abandoned Lautrec has vanished from view, a hat his only testimonial just as Cyrano de Bergerac left behind his plume.
Elsewhere, Lautrec seems to have been conceived as a diminutive French Tevye, complete with “Let’s Drink” as this show’s equivalent to the earlier one’s “To Life.” And Stephan, a vocally able newcomer of (like Aznavour) Armenian descent, plays the “small, repugnant one” like some pint-sized, vaguely Fagin-esque painter on the roof: Indeed, the show comes complete with enough interpolated chants of “Ay yi yi” to suggest that its actual locale isn’t the Montmartre demi-monde but an East End estate in the middle of Anatevka.
In their original French, Aznavour’s lyrics might complement his music, but English lyricist Dee Shipman and book writer Shaun McKenna virtually torpedo proceedings with language so tin-eared that one is rendered speechless. “You’re the painter, right?” Suzanne asks our hero, lest anyone in the audience think they were attending a musical about that other Lautrec.
Later, as if to save on nasal demands on the actors, Henri is called Henry in what we’re told is “the American pronunciation.” (That’s the English one, too, n’est-ce pas?) In all such musicals, from “Marilyn!” (about Monroe!) and “King” (about Martin Luther King) onward, there’s always one defining moment to bring a smile to connoisseurs for years to come. Here, it’s not the song that ends with a fart (and includes dancing picture frames) or even the rhyme of “cognac” with “Offenbach.” Best of all is the way in which an entire culture is encapsulated in one simple offering when Lautrec pere insists, as the French will do, “Have a brioche.”