Whether the Shroud of Turin is the winding sheet in which Christ was buried is a question that will tantalize believers and skeptics for some time to come. But you don't need faith or scientific data to know that "Into the Light," a musical in which the Shroud plays a key role, is fake through and through.
You sense this as soon as the overture begins, with its echoes of Hollywood religious epics blending uneasily with synthesizer sounds. It's as if no one could decide whether to appeal to the faithful or the hip - you know it had more to do with marketing than an honest feeling for the material.
Soon after, a laser show starts - another tipoff. Flashy technology is invariably a way to camouflage the lack of solid ideas. Good actors achieve much deeper effects than beams of light.
The central character is a man who is too busy to care for his family because he's so involved in advanced scientific research. But it's hard to respect him, because it's made clear he's out to "get" the Shroud of Turin - that he wants his team of researchers to prove it's a fake.
Interestingly, their experiments tend to authenticate the Shroud (as, apparently, has some recent research). But who needs to leave home to hear information you could read in a magazine? Moreover, how can you trust what they tell you when everything else about the show is so unconvincing?
Apart from not having a solid point of view about its subject, "Into the Light" demonstrates the limits of cleverness. John Forster's lyrics strain to make an impression. In quick succession he rhymes abbot, habit and stab it; elsewhere he rhymes data with tomat-a. It's all a little too cute for such presumably weighty matters.
Lee Holdridge's music is similarly full of ingenuity, but all too often the music sounds mechanical, technically skillful, but no more.
Although Dean Jones brings refreshing innocence and appeal to the stage, nothing he does can make his character sympathetic. Danny Gerard, who sings and dances like a pro, fairly steals the show as Jones' son, and Alan Mintz, a mime, does a wonderful job as the boy's invisible friend.
Most of the other characters are so sketchily conceived the actors have nothing to work with. (The shabbiness of the imaginations at work here is evident in the corny, vulgar treatment of a chorus of nuns and priests in Turin.)
The best thing about the physical production is the lasers. But if you want a laser show, why not go to the Hayden Planetarium?
They knocked another needless nail into Broadway's coffin last night, giving the fabulous invalid just one more unnecessary setback.
The occasion was a new musical, "Into the Light." The place was the Neil Simon Theater. A certain degree of depression is called for.
One doubtless can think of a more unlikely theme for a Broadway musical than a scientific team investigating the authenticity of a religious relic, but the task would scarcely be easy.
Virtually everything about this mindlessly mundane religious saga by Jeff Tambornino, with music by Lee Holdridge and lyrics by John Forster, would truly need a miracle to save it. All it really has going for it are some truly sterling production values provided by the scenery and projections by Neil Peter Jampolis and Hervig Libowitsky, and the laser beams by Marilyn Lowey. But all that is scarcely enough.
The premise of the show is a semi-fictional treatment of the actual NASA investigation of the so-called "Shroud of Turin."
This historic relicis claimed to be Christ's winding sheet, when he was taken down from the Cross.
The problem is to make all this a fit, or even viable, subject for a Broadway musical - even a Broadway musical that presumably has as its aim, beyond entertainment, some idea to instill faith into the faithless.
Obviously a kind of dramatic conflict is called for, and Tambornino in his book produces the best game plan he can come up with.
First he contrasts "the fragility of faith with the arrogance of science." Then, presumably realizing that this lacks something in human interest, he makes the leader of the scientific party not merely some skeptical, anti-clerical fanatic who is positively dedicated to proving the Shroud to be a fraud, but also pictures him as a father in serious trouble with his young son.
Well, for human interest it somehow never measures up. And this is partly - perhaps largely - the fault of Holdridge's music and Forster's lyrics.
But the music, with plainsong melodies of a liturgical bent and psuedo-Italianate operatic spoofs, makes Andrew Lloyd Webber sound like Gershwin, and the saccharine lyrics only have to be heard not to be believed.
Of course there are still the show's very expensive-looking "special effects." But from the first impressively dimensioned galactic skyscape onward, special effects never seem so special on stage as they do in the movies. Still, it must be admitted that the technical whiz-kids do their best.
Which is probably more than can be said of the cast. Director Michael Maurer has clearly asked everyone to be as coy and as cute as possible, as if they were out-Disneying Disney, without the Disney touch.
Most of the performances are terrible. As the hero, Dean Jones acts as if he were in a wind-tunnel, and is too wooden to portray a cigar-store Indian in a coma.
Some of the others are better. Susan Bigelow as the put-upon wife, for example, looks merely unhappily distraught, and William Parry as a sensible, jocular priest is positively good, as in his pert fashion is Danny Gerard as the son. Thomas Batten has his own moments as a slyly benevolent Archbishop.
But at the final reckoning nothing can stop "Into the Light" from going off into a very dark and windy tunnel, from which no amount of religiosity can save it. Light candles for this one.
"I've waited four years to get my hands on that rag," says James Prescott (Dean Jones), the hero of Broadway's latest musical, ''Into the Light.'' The rag in question is not the secular cloth found in the season's previous ''Rags'' and ''Raggedy Ann,'' but none other than the Shroud of Turin, the linen relic revered by true believers as Jesus' burial cloth. James, a skeptical physicist from Los Alamos, belongs to an American scientific expedition attempting to determine whether the shroud is miracle or hoax. While he eventually does get his hands on the rag, the audience at the Neil Simon Theater must first survive an onslaught of boogeying nuns and more than a few songs with lyrics like ''science without data will not get you from alpha to beta.''
It's a long way from alpha to beta in ''Into the Light,'' for this musical processes nearly as much data as an accountant's office at tax time. Jeff Tambornino, the author of the book, and John Forster, the lyricist, are in painful earnest as they contemplate the conflicts between science and faith. Characters are constantly singing about quarks, particles, molecules, matter and antimatter. Metaphysics are not neglected. ''To measure the darkness,'' sings James at one point, ''You must stand in the dark/But when you stand in the dark, you cannot see a thing.'' Songs like these are not created to set an audience dancing in the aisles.
Conceivably, a brilliant operatic composer and librettist could bring off a show of the weighty sobriety of ''Into the Light.'' The creative team at hand tries and fails to conquer the meaning of the universe with esthetic means that would be a tad lightweight for ''The Tap Dance Kid.'' Mr. Tambornino and Mr. Forster confuse ponderousness with seriousness: James and a hip Jesuit priest (William Parry) carry out their spiritual debates with all the intellectual heat of high-school students executing math equations. While the composer, Lee Holdridge, has operatic and inspirational pretensions, his score is monotonous and insistent in the style of loud wallpaper. Nor can a few green lasers, seemingly left over from ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' electrify a production whose solemn staging (by Michael Maurer), choreography (by Mary Jane Houdina) and design might be more appropriate to a requiem than a musical entertainment.
The evening's only dramatic tension derives from a contrived deadline imposed on James's experiments in Turin. Aside from the clownish Italian clerics and limp theological one-liners (''Why did God create anchovies if everyone hates them?''), the only levity comes in the form of a domestic subplot. James's obsession with his scientific mission leads him to neglect his wife (Susan Bigelow) and young son (Danny Gerard) for the lab. The son, to compensate for his father's absence, places his faith in a jolly fantasy friend whom no one else, the audience regrettably excepted, can see. As played with excessive zeal by Alan Mintz, this ''special friend'' is a prancing, eye-rolling mime - Pinky Lee reincarnated as a chorus boy from ''Godspell.''
The other performances, including that of Peter Howard's pit band, are as solid as the quicksand of their material allows. Mr. Gerard ably carries the evening's one spirited song (Act I's ''Trading Solos'') on his tiny shoulders. Mr. Parry, Ms. Bigelow, Casper Roos and Thomas Batten bring firm voices to notes that might better be left unsung. As for Mr. Jones, he is as relaxed, ingratiating and nearly as boyish a musical performer as when he last appeared on Broadway - on the same stage, in Stephen Sondheim's ''Company,'' over 15 years ago. But no star can carry a show that asks whether God is dead in a manner that's likely to bore Him to death if He's not.