Until a few years ago, New York was the undisputed musical theater capital of the world. Then came ``Cats,'' generally reckoned to be the top international musical hit of the 1980s. This all-British phenomenon proved that London was at last ready to give Broadway a run for its money. And so it has. Since ``Cats,'' every London theater season has offered a brand-new musical creation, each further from the high-kicking Broadway tradition than the last. The subjects have ranged from the downright silly to the deeply serious, but there's one common thread: spectacular staging. Whether it's turning an entire theater into a multilevel racetrack for human trains on rollerskates, as in the hugely successful ``Starlight Express,'' or breathtakingly re-creating the sepia realism of a 19th-century French painting, as in last season's biggest hit, ``Les Mis'erables,'' the visual impact is always stunning.
So it continues. This season the big attention-getter is ``Time,'' a new musical that just opened at London's Dominion Theater. The production was devised, co-written and co-scored by Dave Clark (of the 1960s rock group bearing his name), with directorial help from American director-choreographer Larry Fuller.
Before the much-hyped opening, Clark called ``Time'' a ``caring musical.''
Why? The plot line holds some clues.
``Time'' imagines the day that the earth is put on trial for its sins. The story opens at a rock concert by the world's greatest rock star, Chris Wilder (Cliff Richard). Just as Chris and his three-girl backup team are finishing a thumping finale, the whole theater begins to thump as well. Blinding panels of lights flicker and flash. Green laser beams pulsate from every direction. A 38-foot saucer levitates before our eyes, while both stage and audience are engulfed in a phantasmagoric swirl.
Suddenly a huge blob materializes from the heavens. It hovers in midair, then opens to reveal a 14-foot head of Sir Laurence Olivier. It speaks. Indeed, it is Olivier -- through the means of 3-D trick photography -- in the guise of Akash, ``the final word'' of the universe.
Akash explains that Chris & Co. have just been whisked away to a planet umpteen light years from Earth for the purpose of defending it; and if the space judges cannot be convinced of any reason why this wayward, warring planet of ours should continue to exist, the next step will be annihilation.
Why a rock star for such a task? Well, it seems that Captain Ebony, former ruler of a now defunct planet of similar fate, and currently working incognito in San Francisco as a disc jockey, had gotten wind of the impending Earth trial. He also had an inside track on who would be sent for its defense: a deputation of politicians. From his experience on Earth, this spelled disaster. He regards rock music as the real fount of wisdom. So the soft-hearted Ebony manages a switch and has the world's most famous rock star transported instead.
After a seemingly ironclad case is put forward by the prosecution condemning Earth for polluting itself with ``violence, strife, and greed,'' Wilder manages, at the last moment, to bring home some points about humankind's more endearing qualities. Earth is saved, but on a probationary basis only. ``Go forth in love,'' coos the chimerical Akash from some distant corner of the universe. ``Reasoning is your greatest tool. Choose your words carefully, and use your time wisely. Remember, we are watching.''
The show's heart is in the right place, but it misses by a mile. Maybe more. Although it has some of the finest galactic star works this side of Andromeda -- making ``Time'' London's most expensive musical ever -- soppy sentiments and sophomoric sophistry are its undoing.
Which is a pity. The casting of Cliff Richard -- Britain's most enduring rock star and widely respected for his untiring Christian work -- and Laurence Olivier, in this, his first theater appearance (albeit by film proxy) since 1973, has guaranteed sellout crowds well into next fall.
But the ``caring'' point of the musical is squandered. Swathing it in such banal lyrics as ``We can all know everything without ever knowing why/It's in every one of us by and by,'' and such empty utterances from Akash as ``It's a wonderful thing to walk upon the moon, but the beauty must be enjoyed, not destroyed,'' desiccates whatever dignity Olivier and Richard have lent it. Even Olivier's ``presence,'' given his stilted words, is far less than it ought to be. Moreover, the acting generally is wooden, the direction uninspired, and the music only so-so.
Most egregious, however, is the show's inherent contradiction. Clark's main point is that man's greatest failing comes from technological prowess superseding spiritual development. Yet in relying so heavily himself on theatrical fireworks, rather than putting more energy into grappling with this point at a deeper level, Clark falls into the same sort of trap.