"Rock 'n Roll! The First 5,000 Years'' may be the spectacle of the season. Tracing the history of rock from Little Richard and Bill Haley to Devo and the Go-Go's, it counterpoints its merry sounds with a larger-than-life collage of films, slides, and tableaux drawn from art, history, and prehistory.
If it leaves you feeling a little empty as you leave the St. James Theater, though, the reason isn't hard to find. As colorful as the show is, it never digs below the surface of the pop scene it so vigorously mimics. And it homogenizes the many rock styles it feeds on - selling them all with equal ardor, as if the chronicle of rock didn't have its own peaks and valleys.
And it does. For example, here's my own nutshell history of American pop in the past three decades:
* The '50s. A golden age, when rock 'n' roll burst forth in a blaze of energy and imagination.
* The '60s. Started slowly as conventions petrified into formulas, but soared on the wings of the ''British invasion'' led by the Beatles, and picked up momentum from the poetic musings of Bob Dylan and the folk-rockers.
* The '70s. Sank into the doldrums as sterile profiency replaced joyful spontaneity. The punks tried to revive the scene by bringing it back to basics, but their success was fitful.
* The '80s. Guilty until proven innocent.
You may have a completely different view of the ages of rock. But whatever your likes and dislikes, you won't find them mirrored in this show, which relentlessly celebrates every aspect of pop with the indiscriminate zeal of a door-to-door salesman. This makes for a lively evening, but a wearing one. You may find yourself humming along and looking at your watch at the same time.
The production values are superb, however - especially the staggering images that sweep across the stage with split-second timing. As the live performers do accurate impressions of various rockers, slide and movie screens punctuate their antics with a dense array of pictures. It's downright dazzling to watch a mob of singers wail some classic song while images ebb and flow behind, before, above, and beneath them in a shifting visual commentary.
True, the pictures often seem to have an independent existence, moving to their own logic instead of the music's. But this is fitting. In life, after all, the pop scene is an indirect mirror of sociopolitical realities; only after years have passed do the underlying links between art and actuality become clear.
So it's right that the visuals of ''Rock 'n Roll!'' are allusive rather than specific, connotative rather than denotative. It makes an inner kind of sense to hear a perverse love ballad by Bob Dylan - and not a vehement ''protest song'' - while we see antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s, or to watch images of Watergate while listening to ''School's Out'' by Alice Cooper. Seeing the singers through a movie-covered scrim is like remembering old tunes through a haze of history and memory.
High marks go to all the performers, who evoke pop styles as diverse as those of Fats Domino and Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Elton John. Joe Layton's choreography is spunky, if rarely distinguished, and John Simon's ''musical continuity'' keeps the tunes flowing at a heady pace.
''Rock 'n Roll!'' is a high-tech triumph, if not the definitive summary it would like to be.