In the final scene of "Marlowe," a rock musical that opened last night at the Rialto, vapor machines pump out knee-deep fog that spreads across the stage and over the apron to spill into the front rows, enveloping front-row patrons at Friday's preview and causing some to leave their seats fanning the stuff with their programs. Had the evening begun this way, the theater might have been cleared out immediately, to the benefit of one and all.
This is a show that should carry a warning from the Surgeon-General that it might be hazardous to your mental health. And since it is so heavily miked that it screeches at you most of the long evening, it just might be hard on your hearing, too.
It is identified as taking place in England in 1593, but the dialogue - which is exceedingly stupid, by the way - is an odd mixture of contemporary pop and highfalutin outbursts. It would present us with the free, iconoclastic spirit of the Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe in the person of Patrick Jude, who might just as well have been playing Philip Marlowe for all it mattered, and who gave the impression of addressing a Madison Square Garden rock audience most of the time instead of a small band of theatergoers that had grown considerably smaller by the time the second half began.
Roaming about in the broad, multi-level unit set that unaccountably created stage waits while panels were being shifted in the dark were a curly-haired blond drip named William Shakespeare who had supposedly just completed a first play called "Henry VI" without having given a thought to "The Comedy of Errors" or anything else except some sonnets; Queen Elizabeth, a scrawny creature with the seductive voice of a Ninth Ave. landlady encountering a tenant in arrears; and various other figures of the time. The only one of the lot who exhibited the slightest bit of acting talent was, fittingly enough, the fellow (John Henry Kurtz) playing Richard Burbage.
Jude's co-star, the pint-sized, hip-swinging Lisa Mordente demonstrated some style as a cabaret singer, if not an actress, in the role of a girl who would like to break into the theater and at the same time break the Elizabethan custom of having boys play girls' roles. Fancied by both the swashbuckling Marlowe and the wimp Shakespeare, she quite naturally chose the former, doomed because of his flamboyant atheism and general highhandedness.
"Marlowe," mounted with as little sense of style as possible (the musical staging by Don Price, the over-all director, is downright silly), almost makes one think wistfully of those bygone follies "Rockabye Hamlet" and "Got Tu Go Disco."
Christopher Marlowe has always fascinated me: the writer of transcendental lines, the 16th-Century poet of lofty aspirations and less-than-lofty habits.
He died in a drunken brawl, but had he lived, there is a feeling he could have been the equal, if not the equivalent, of Shakespeare himself. Only Ben Jonson had the same kind of eloquence.
Now, through some quirk of fate, he has become the hero of a rock musical that opened at the Rialto last night, called, with some appropriateness, Marlowe.
It is a curious combination for rock music, and music at that, to be employed in an Elizabethan tragedy. One hardly knows why the subject was chosen, one hardly knows why the music was thought appropriate, and one hardly knows why the entire musical could be imagined as faintly viable.
It is not that the music and the lyrics by Jimmy Horowitz and the book and lyrics by Leo Rost are totally lost. But they simply have little direction, small force, and no real impulse.
There are certainly two things going for the musical in the performances of Patrick Jude and Lisa Mordente, and more of those anon. Yet this aged kind of music, which rarely raises a drizzle, much less a storm, lacks the immediacy of modern rock and sounds like an old score.
The Marlowe story has a certain curiosity, with its connections to Queen Elizabeth I and to all those Catholic conspiracies that afflicted her reign. And, unquestionably, the poet himself emerges as a major, if fugitive, figure of his time.
Unfortunately, this musical really never gets to the heart of Marlowe, and makes a travesty of his poetry.
This, after all, was a man of enormous stature as a playwright - a man who gave us Dr. Faustus and Edward II. And yet he emerges from this musical as a simple roustabout of swashbuckling sexual pretensions, a man too shallow for his art.
There are, however, some merits to this musical that must be seriously considered. Even though the book and the music can hardly relate to the thematic material, oddly enough the performances do. This is partly through the very vigorous staging by Don Price, who is apparently under the supervision of the producer Tony Conforti, and enormously helped by the simple set design by Cary Chalmers, and the costumes by Natalie Walker.
But probably the major contribution to the evening comes from the performances of its two stars, Jude and Miss Mordente. Miss Mordente as Emelia Bossano, portrayed as Marlowe's lover, had a force, vigor, and sheer beguiling charm that would do credit to her mother Chita Rivera and her father Tony Mordente. This is a major talent.
Another exceptional performance comes from the flamboyantly happy Patrick Jude in the eponymous role of Marlowe. The man has style, he can sing, and he can act. He does the music proud, and the character as effectively as possible.
But this is not a Marlowe that, one suspects, Marlowe himself would have approved.
When everything goes right in a musical, the audience feels a rush of exhilaration that is the quintessence of Broadway. And what happens when everything goes wrong? Well, when everything goes wrong, another kind of giddiness sets in - that same slaphappy feeling that comes when Laurel and Hardy send a grand piano crashing down a flight of stairs.
Such is the perverse pleasure offered by ''Marlowe,'' a wholly ridiculous show that is much more fun to sit through than many merely mediocre musicals. Like such famous Broadway fiascos as ''Kelly,'' ''Rachel Lily Rosenbloom'' and ''Rockabye Hamlet,'' this one has the courage to meet vulgarity far more than halfway. If ''Marlowe'' isn't quite a classic of its kind, that's a matter of size, not content. Tacky-looking and sparsely populated, this show lacks the Titanic-like splendor and expenditure of Broadway's all-time fabulous wrecks.
Connoisseurs of theatrical disaster will still find much amusement in the self-described rock musical that opened last night at the Rialto. In attempting to give us a song-and-dance account of that madcap Elizabethan playwright, Christopher (Kit) Marlowe - the one who had ''the devil market cornered'' - the co-authors, Leo Rost and Jimmy Horowitz, have left no folio undefaced. The insanity begins with the opening scene, in which Queen Elizabeth I (Margaret Warncke) dispatches a lover with the line, ''Don't forget your codpiece!''
A little later, there's a musical number in which Marlowe, ''Willy'' Shakespeare and Richard Burbage get stoned on marijuana provided by Sir Walter Raleigh - who has passed it on from his good friend Pocohantas. Act II reaches its peak when the hero (Patrick Jude) returns from the grave on a cloud of dry-ice smoke. Wearing a silver lame jumpsuit - tight enough to reveal a bulky microphone battery-pack above his navel - he imparts the evening's message in a song called ''The Madrigal Blues'': ''Make love to life, and you will find death a friend.''
Though it pays lip service to Marlowe's renegade anticlerical views, the libretto is principally concerned with his love life. As the authors have it, their hero stole a woman, Emelia Bossano (Lisa Mordente), from Shakespeare - and never mind the other characters' conjecture that Marlowe tended to ''prefer the boys.'' According to the Playbill, ''the story of this drama is essentially true and accurate, except for minor adjustments in time for dramatic purpose.'' This may come as a surprise to some scholars, who will discover, in addition to the other ''minor adjustments,'' that the authors have changed the generally accepted location and perpetrator of Marlowe's murder.
Don Price, the director, has assembled the very cast the material demands. With his open shirt, glittery vest and leopard boots, the pelvis-thrusting Mr. Jude would be the toast of any small-town shopping-center disco. The rumpled, miniskirted Miss Mordente has two expressions to go with Mr. Jude's one, and she reacts to her lover's death with all the sorrow of a 16-year-old who's discovered a small run in her stocking. Lennie Del Duca, Jr.'s spurned Shakespeare - ''I've sweated sonnets for you,'' he tells Miss Mordente - is so retiring and slow-witted that we always believe the authors' contention that he was the Globe's foremost nerd.
The scraggly chorus of Elizabethan ''chroniclers,'' wearing Day-Glo tights, performs dance routines that might be ragged run-throughs for a Jordache jeans commercial. They inhabit a balconied set that suggests just how 16th-century England might have looked had cellophane, aluminum foil and Con-Tac paper only been invented back then. The sound-alike ''rock'' songs recall high-school band improvisations, circa 1965. Because of the acoustical feedback, static and rumbles, the lyrics are often garbled. The few that do surface - ''Good guys and bad guys couldn't deny / Marlowe was king of the gadflies'' - make one regret the loss of even a single verse.