Imagine a vandal stealing into the Met, finding a Chagall, slashing it with a razor, scrawling graffiti over it and then pasting a few sequins over the ravaged canvas.
That gives you a rough idea of "Roza," a musical based on the same material as the film "Mme. Rosa." It treats the tender story of an ex-prostitute who raises the children of other prostitutes, partly to support herself, partly for subtle emotional reasons, as if it were an R. Crumb comic.
Director Harold Prince has lost no opportunity to coarsen the material. At no time does he let us forget that the central character was a whore. She must not have been a very alluring or imaginative one, because the way she bulldozes around the stage she seems all business.
At one point, wearing a garish, oversized red dress, a stogy hanging from her mouth, kicking her fleshy legs in the air, poor Georgia Brown looks like some overweight female impersonator imitating Bette Midler.
Gilbert Becaud's music, some of which is evocatively Mediterranean, much of which has a '60s French "ye-ye" sound, rarely gives her a chance to move us. Much of it seems to lie in a part of her throat where the sounds are raspy and grating.
The only ostensibly feminine touch is a gratuitous transsexual character, played with great finesse by Bob Gunton. Most of the other characters are mere caricatures, though Alex Paez has a pleasing, if mannered, singing style. He and Joey McKneely have a bouncy clown dance in Act Two, the charm of which is undercut by its utter meaninglessness.
The orchestra sounds like a huge jukebox. The lyrics also add to the aura of cheapness. The set, a ramshackle Paris apartment house, has an eccentric raffishness, as do the costumes. But all in all, "Roza" gives vulgarity a bad name.
Georgia Brown is more than sweet, she is fantastic, she contains multitudes, and, in "Roza," as the Paris slum denmother roughly nurturing the brats of whores, she has the role of a lifetime.
The musical itself - ah, that is another story, although the story is far from all bad. Yet the immediate reason why you should hie yourself to the Royale box-office is quite clearly Brown.
With her frazzled ginger hair, her blowsy air of defiant desperation, her gift for survival - after all she beat Hitler and the camps, didn't she? - Madame Roza is a character larger than strife.
She shouts, she screams, she suffers, she loves - she is alive, yes, flamboyantly, crazily, dangerously alive. And it is Brown's gemlike intensity that makes her both credible and stageworthy.
The musical itself, most mysteriously, seems more like a play with music than a musical proper. I say mysteriously because, in fact, there is an awful lot of music (actually this could be more fairly characterized as mediocre rather than awful) yet this music sounds doggedly incidental.
The story has been taken by the English writer Julian More from a novel by Romain Gary, which 10 years ago was also made into a movie starring Simone Signoret.
More enlisted the help of the cabaret star and composer Gilbert Becaud to provide the score, and the combination of More - who once adapted "Irma La Douce" for London and Broadway - and Becaud has turned out something sounding suspiciously like "Irma on the Roof."
Cabaret music, even at its most passionate, is essentially intimate - it is not really theater music. And Becaud, possibly to offset this, but partly governed by the theme, has given the score bold Jewish overtones. Which is how Irma got up on the roof.
The story not only holds the attention, but in the process it sweeps the music under its dramatic carpet. And yet - and here's the real rub - as a play, "Roza" is still not quite good enough on its present terms, even though Harold Prince's staging and the performances of the cast adroitly try to persuade us the contrary.
Roza is a retired lady of the streets, whose heart of platinum is riddled through with as many soft spots as an eroded gruyere cheese.
She pretends she is in her illicit child care business for the money - but she is really in it for the kids. Especially for the love of one young Arab boy, Momo.
The setting by Alexander Okun, a rambling Parisian tenement, with the crazy angles of a German silent movie set, and staircases that wind round the stage like the entrance hall to an anthill, is marvelously appropriate - shabby but grand, like Roza herself.
And this setting, like Florence Klotz's fun-tawdry costumes, is merely the first of all the admirable production values and insights Prince has lavished on the show. He has even made a virtue of the story's lack of coherence or continuity, making it seem like page-episodes from a secret diary.
Nowadays, Prince is chiefly associated with spectacle. Here he shows his mettle no less effectively in smaller measures.
One example must suffice. Towards the middle of the play Momo has to age four years before our very eyes - Prince creates this illusion with one of the oldest tricks of theatrical legerdemain, and it works like a charm.
In all of this, Prince's cast and casting is perfect, and although it is doubtless this aspect that carries the night, credit must be given More and Becaud for providing, if scarcely a triumphant carriage, at least a viable vehicle.
To return to Brown - for the musical itself dwells on her - this English singer, still remembered for her pathos in Lionel Bart's "Oliver!", handles Becaud's music with a ragamuffin Piaf-like sparrow-bleat, belting it out shamelessly through a haze of bleary emotion.
However, this is no one-woman show. Roza has for a friend Lola, a fellow tenant, who is an Argentinian transvestite, a former boxer, now, with matter-of-fact dispatch, turning a few tricks to raise the money to pay for transsexual surgery.
Whether Lola will ever get what Lola wants seems doubtful. She is a gallant loser from the first bell, but as handsomely played by Bob Gunton, she has grace, charm, dignity and a special quality of caring.
All the others in the cast - especially the sensitive and distraught Alex Paez, as the older Momo, who has even been given a lively vaudeville dance routine with an acrobatic Joey McKneely by the choreographer, Patricia Birch - fill in perfectly the well-routined dramatic gaps in a predictably sentimental saga meant to play on our emotions like a mighty Wurlitzer.
When all is said and done, if your emotions feel like a cutrate and painless work-out, you should enjoy "Roza" on its own cheap and cheerful terms.
You are unlikely to leave the Royale humming the tunes, but you may be rubbing away a few fugitive, shamefaced tears, and everyone will surely appreciate and love the indomitable gusto of Georgia Brown, Bob Gunton and Hal Prince - a trio that gets the new Broadway season off to a fine walking start.
"Roza," the new musical at the Royale, overflows with so much gooey humanity that it's easy to leave the theater feeling like W. C. Fields on a misanthropic day: one's first impulse is to find and kick a very small dog.
In the world of ''Roza,'' love unites all - Jews and Arabs, blacks and whites, whores and their johns, transsexuals and middle-aged matrons. It's a utopian vision, and were it presented with some conviction or pizazz, the show might have made an effective fund-raising vehicle for the anti-Bork brigades. But the director Harold Prince and his collaborators simply pour on the milk of human kindness by the indiscriminate barrelful, as if that alone could buoy the nonentities and inanities cluttering the stage. Not for the first time does humanitarianism prove the last, desperate resort of a musical lacking such fundamentals as decent songs and a sound script.
The libretto, by Julian More, has been adapted from the same Romain Gary novel that inspired the movie ''Madame Rosa.'' Its all-too-indomitable heroine is a Polish-born Nazi concentration-camp survivor and former prostitute who has since set herself up in Paris as ''a one-woman Unicef.'' Roza uses her tenement home as a shelter for the orphaned, multiracial children of a new generation of streetwalkers: she's sort of a Josephine Baker without feathers. As written by Mr. More and played with stubby, gravel-voiced brio by the formidable Georgia Brown, Roza doesn't recall Simone Signoret's screen Rosa so much as the past Prince-musical protagonists Tevye and Zorba in drag.
Like her theatrical predecessors, the woman is a fount of homespun aphorisms culled from her roots. ''Live a little!'' is the profound message of her last song, and by then one eagerly awaits the final curtain that will allow the directive to be put into practice. There are other philosophizers pumping hot air into ''Roza'' as well. Lola (Bob Gunton), a heavyweight fighter (ne Luis) from Rio who now turns tricks to finance a sex-change operation, delivers an old Brazilian saying with an American Express twang to it: ''You can't leave home until you know where you came from.'' Hamil (Neal Ben-Ari), a 99-year-old Moslem sage who serves as the show's informal chorus, punctuates each scene with a cute epigram that makes one wonder whether the Koran might be the long-lost ur-text of fortune cookies distributed on the Upper West Side.
When it is not waxing metaphysical, Mr. More's almost plotless book deals with Roza's attempt to cling to the orphan she loves most, the Arab boy Momo. But the relationship is too superficially drawn to sustain two acts, and after intermission a previously turgid musical spins into not uncomic chaos as its creators frantically search for some way to fill time until Roza's inevitable demise. The second-act artistic nervous breakdown begins with an inexplicable clown-and-drag-queen act that might have leapt over from ''Cabaret,'' the Prince musical about to be revived across 45th Street. The numbers that follow are even battier. Momo celebrates his emergence into manhood (''Sweet Seventeen'') by joining a pair of hookers in a go-go dance that has all the Gallic flavor of a Pepsi commercial. Lola soon leads a screechy, incense-clouded voodoo ceremony, then joins Roza in a bouncy duet proclaiming how they might have been each other's ''better half'' if only Lola had remained Luis.
Through it all, and no doubt through incompetence rather than malice, ''Roza'' keeps undermining the uplifting credos it professes to espouse. Ethnic and sexual stereotyping abound: Roza's Jewish charge never removes his horn-rimmed glasses, the Moroccan Hamil is forever perched with rugs and a hookah and the brassy tarts have hearts of gold. The black and Oriental tots in Roza's household are so patronizingly presented that they aren't even thrown any scraps of dialogue. Worse, the show trivializes Nazism by equating the Gestapo with French child-care authorities and by giving Roza a pseudo-Dietrich anthem that poetically stresses ''the rain'' as the gravest indignity she suffered when traveling to the death camps.
The music accompanying Mr. More's tortured lyrics is by Gilbert Becaud, and, like Roza's brood, is a melting pot - albeit of Europop schlock. Ersatz Piaf is stirred into ''Middle Eastern'' music redolent of old-time desert movies in which savages ambush the colonials. As orchestrated by Michael Gibson, the ballads have the insistent soft-rock beat that one hears in those second-class international resorts where the clientele is encouraged to clear out of the discos and head for the slot machines.
Ms. Brown belts her share of these goods with real force, and it's not her fault that Roza's character never moves beyond her single note of lovably gruff invincibility. Mr. Gunton, an actor who has previously enjoyed happier turns playing a Latin (in Mr. Prince's ''Evita'') and a woman (in ''How I Got That Story''), is given a more elaborate wardrobe (by Florence Klotz) than role. The other adult performances, some of them in cryptic parts that seem all but written out of the show, are negligible, but the kiddies, whatever their age or ethnic group, are an active nuisance. The bratty young Momo of Act I is eventually succeeded by a preening, crooning young man who boasts just the moves necessary to lead the Sharks in a well-heeled summer-camp production of ''West Side Story.''
In his staging, Mr. Prince has done pretty much what he did with his last Broadway musical, ''Grind'': ''Roza'' is shrouded in cigar-smoke hues that attempt to belie the material's sentimentality and advertise a thematic gravity akin to the director's ''Sweeney Todd.'' To this end, the Soviet-trained designer Alexander Okun has contributed a true folly of a set. Roza's tenement is a tilted, topsy-turvy heap of distorted rooms and twisted stairways, crowned by a cubist, Delaunay-style hint of Paris with the colors drained out. While Mr. Okun is clearly an artist, his gloomy, impractical design allows only a scattering of cramped, perilously steep playing areas. That leaves little room for dancing, but so busy is the set on its own that ''Roza'' can induce seasickness even when engaged in its characteristic activity of standing still.