If you want to be a constructive critic, as I sincerely do, sometimes you have to bend the rules a bit.
If you were to judge a show like "Starmites," for example, by conventional standards, you might say nasty things. You might compare it with the other grotesque musicals that have opened this season and call it the most empty-headed. You might point out that the book, which is about a teenager obsessed with comics, is more two-dimensional than any cartoon. There is a song about "inner beauty" that is meaningless, because this heroine has none. She is merely peevish.
You might quote some of the lyrics ("Call me macho/ A hot-to-trot Joe") to show how amateurish they are. You might note that though the songs begin with introductions that suggest they might be in different styles, once the verse arrives almost all have the same monotonous, relentless rhythm and repetitive melodies. (The exceptions are a quiet duet and a bouncy gospel number.)
You might mention a moment where the villain talked about The Cruelty. He said The Cruelty had the power to transform us all into "soulless creatures," and you thought, because he was pointing downstage, he meant the orchestra, until you noticed a wrench-like object hanging in the air. (Your instincts, however, were not wrong, since the object becomes a guitar, yet another device to torment your ears.)
But these are the comments of a conventional critic, not a constructive one. We constructivists look for a new perspective, and I think I've found one. In the last few years a whole new genre has emerged, musicals that have no intrinsic merit but are suitable for leaving the kids while you go shopping.
In this genre, you have "Cats," "Starlight Express" and now "Starmites." In this genre you don't judge a musical by its content but rather by its visuals. Will they live up to the expectations of kids suckled on MTV? Here "Starmites" is a sort of trailblazer. With the exception of a rather imposing mummy-like object with spooky eyes, claws and a glitzy interior, the style of the show is Tacky High-Tech, surely a new category with loads of potential.
Both constructive and conventional critics would commend the cast's high energy. Both would single out Sharon McNight, who has such pizzazz she can transcend even this dreary material.
The only problem with my approach is that it condescends to kids. Depressingly enough, "Starmites" will probably prepare them well for the schlock musicals of the future. I think they - and we - deserve better.
I am honestly beginning to believe that this current Broadway season has been sent to us by some immaculate manifest destiny to chide all of us who have ever been unwise enough to complain about Broadway's past.
What on earth were we worried about? Take the worst season the oldest and bitterest among you can recall, and it comes up like roses in comparison with the Grand Gloom of '89.
How bad has the 1988/89 Broadway season been? So bad, that when the horrible reckoning of the Tony nominations is finally made, the musical "Starmites," which hazily emerged at the Criterion Center's brand new Stage Right Theater (here is a Right starting off with a Wrong!) last night will conceivably be considered a contender. Migawd!
I know what "Starmites" is about - I just don't know what it thinks it is about. What audience is it aimed at - the naively innocent, or sophisticatedly stupid, admirers of comic books, or admirers of comic-book camp?
Do we laugh with "Starmites" or do we laugh at it? Are we meant, with a few affectionate nudges, to recapture our lost childhood, or is a secret part of us still expected to respond to the cartoon excitement of other planets?
Is is meant to emulate "The Rocky Horror Show" - which it singularly fails to do - or is it meant to be a modest, domestic version of such London space-spectactulars as "Time" or, even, that roller-derby railroad schedule, "Starlight Express"?
As for the basic story I can do no better than quote the show's press release. "'Starmites' is a musical about Eleanor Fairchild, who is magically transported to the world of her favorite comic-book series.
"There she battles the Diva (reigning Queen of Innerspace), other evil archvillains, falls in love with the man of her dreams, saves the galaxy - and still makes it home in time for dinner."
If I were you, I wouldn't risk any inter-galactic traveling here. Just settle for the dinner and go straight to a restaurant. Or, better yet, stay home and save money. You might want to go to the movies one day.
The music and lyrics by Barry Keating carry the unmemorable to as yet uncharted areas of amnesia. The style is chiefly rock (with a little light opera thrown in for heavy ballast) and the effect is entirely rocky.
I note from the Playbill that Keating once contributed the score to "The Slick of '76, a musical catastrophe." His new apple - recalling Alar and Exxon - has not fallen far enough from that tree.
His co-author on this venture is Stuart Ross. One wonders how much time these two grown and presumably talented men spent on this comic-book trifle. Larry Carpenter was the director and Michelle Asaf the choreographer.
Obviously I don't want to be too rough on this - some of the preview audience I saw it with seemed to have a whale of a time, and the energy of both the cast and the orchestra was consistently engaging.
The show itself has clearly been through a meat grinder of revisions, starting with a first presentation at the Ark Theater, proceeding to a production by Musical Theater Works, and then being subsequently developed and produced at the American Stage Festival, Milford, N.H.
The trouble with it - even before the music and lyrics - is the idea. It is a foolish idea for a musical. And nothing in the theater can redeem folly except a circus. And this is no circus.
Credit to Lowell Detweiler's sets suggesting fantasy on the cheap, and Susan Hirschfeld's costumes making more modest moves in the same direction.
And the cast went through the show with great dedication and commitment.
I particularly liked the big-momma suavity of Sharon McNight as Diva, the boy-next-door ingenuousness of Brian Lane Green as Spacepunk, and the reptilian liveliness of Gabriel Barre as a giant lizard. Liz Larsen seemed - even in the circumstances - a shade too gung-ho as the heroine, but it was only a shade too far.
Perhaps I am being mean, certainly I am being comparatively wise after the unhappy event, but one wonders why shows like "Starmites" - my computer, which has a mind of its own, has already once written "Termites" by mistake - get produced.
Obviously people fall in love with them and are blind to the consequences. And I suppose such people - the producers here were Hinks Shimberg, Mary Keil, Steven Warnick, Peter Boyo, John Burt and Severn Sandt - should not, in general, be discouraged.
But possibly - at least in my view, for my colleagues may love it - a little tactful discouragement might be in order in the case of shows such as this, for I suspect that so far as success is concerned "Starmites" might, but won't.
The new 499-seat theater, also making its debut, looked a fairly useful facility, although at first glance it does seem to have more foyers and staircases than seating and stage.
''Starmites,'' the most microcosmic of intergalactic epics, arrived on Broadway last night after a nine-year odyssey through the outer reaches of Off Broadway and regional theater. Despite changes, the show remains what it always was - a space-age ''Peter Pan'' of particular interest to Trekkies, star warriors and sci-fi fans of all generations.
The Barry Keating comic-book musical that inaugurated the new Criterion Center Stage Right theater is a polished high-tech version of the original that first amused audiences at the Ark Theater in SoHo. The show has been slightly enlarged, although even on Broadway it retains a convivial Off Broadway feeling. In that and other senses, it has some of the appeal of ''Little Shop of Horrors'' and is the very opposite of Andrew Lloyd Webber's ''Starlight Express.'' This is a vest-pocket rather than a fast-track musical.
What ''Starmites'' has is a childlike fancifulness and a genuine affection for its genre, for its labyrinthine detail as well as its exclamatory dialogue. Mr. Keating, who conceived the show, composed the score and co-wrote the book with Stuart Ross, is clearly a comic-book fanatic.
The cast is headed by the lithesome Liz Larsen, playing a teen-age earthling with a passion for comics. In a time and space warp, she turns out to be the legendary Milady, a potential queen of the universe who can finger snap a foe into a state of suspended animation. Her adventures lead her into the nether regions of Innerspace to rescue the solar system from self-destruction - and from such societal impediments as tabloid television. The show has its share of social commentary, although it still does not have a sharply satiric storyline. At times, ''Starmites'' veers perilously close to the subject it is spoofing.
The heroine is a neo-feminist version of all those storybook young women who were flown - or blown away - to kingdom come. In this case, the ''lost boys'' are street urchins in sneakers and ragged dungarees. Their mini-membership includes a lead singer and a backup trio that needs absolutely no encouragement to break into a song like the catchy title number. Milady's comrade in arms is the lead Starmite, clean-cut despite his name, Spacepunk. He is a variation on Luke Skywalker (the actor, Brian Lane Green, bears a certain resemblance to Harrison Ford).
The quest leads the couple to a Darth Vader-land in search of a totemic super weapon called the Cruelty. In the first version of the show, the Cruelty looked like a cross between a French horn and a kewpie doll. On Broadway, it becomes a glistening heavy-metal guitar. In neither instance is it as imaginative as it should be. The book is also burdened by too many references by Ms. Larsen to chapter and verse in her comic-book collection back on earth. If she really knew how every episode was going to turn out, she could have cut to the chase.
The most salutary approach is to sit back in the comfortable new Criterion Center theater and enjoy the show's assets. These include Mr. Keating's eclectic pop-rock score, which occasionally pauses for a sweet ballad or a gospel number between the hard-driving 60's-style melodies. Some of Mr. Keating's lyrics are simplistic, but others have a cartoon cleverness, which is something that could also be said about the show itself.
To its credit, ''Starmites'' never takes itself too seriously and is always tongue in cheek. It remains a light-hearted space flight. Ms. Larsen, in particular, is appealing as the damsel who can single-handedly overcome distress but does not want to push her pluck too far. Zestfully, she sets her character in her opening anthem, ''Superhero Girl.''
The actress also doubles as her other self, a homely Innerspace teen-ager on a postnasal trip. In both her guises, she is arm in arm with Mr. Green, playing a super hero who is sometimes so busy expressing himself rhetorically that he forgets he is meant to be a man of action. Ms. Larsen and Mr. Green are nicely matched for duets, and Bennett Cale, Victor Trent Cook and Christopher Zelno are their helpful support team.
The plot cauldron bubbles with the character of Diva, the Queen of the Banshees and an enemy who becomes friendly under fire. In a role that might have been made to order for Bette Midler, Sharon McNight is power-packed. Her signature song, ''Hard to Be Diva,'' is a lowdown growl of cheerful discontent with celebrity. As she sings, ''It's hard to be Diva, but so much harder not to be.'' Ms. McNight also plays Diva's opposite, the earthling's nagging mother.
The Banshees are Diva's women warriors. Unfortunately, these backup belters are beyond camp, with the lead singer a dominatrix who might be more at home in an operatic version of ''Springtime for Hitler.'' ''Starmites'' goes too far at times, but perhaps that is in the nature of the comic-book style. The fantasy elements are enhanced in Larry Carpenter's resourceful production. In its extended program credits, the show lists not only a chief pyrotechnician but also an apprentice pyrotechnician. Whenever there is a momentary lapse, special effects - laser beams, a shower of stars - and Ms. Larsen herself come to the rescue.