All too like its central character, "Smile," a musical about beauty pageants, doesn't seem sure it wants to win. And about the last thing you want in a contestant - or a Broadway musical - is uncertainty and false modesty.
At times "Smile" flirts with satire. But it never goes very deep. Moreover, beauty pageants are a fairly easy target. No one nowadays really can be startled to learn they are hypocritical events, honoring old-fashioned values that have very little standing in everyday American life.
Michael Ritchie's film, on which the musical is based, overflowed with satiric detail. Here the emphasis is on two sitcom-type stories, neither of which has much zest.
In one, the most wholesome, least competitive of the contestants is befriended and coached by the most experienced and savvy of the lot, a girl who escapes her unhappy family life by entering contests regularly and dreaming about The World According to Disney.
In the other, a former winner who wants to succeed in the beauty pageant business betrays the values she is supposed to represent to get ahead.
The most disappointing thing about the show is Marvin Hamlisch's understated score. It's as if Hamlisch thought his role was to play second fiddle to Howard Ashman's largely uninspired lyrics. The one song that has the emotional power we associate with Hamlisch is the beautiful "In Our Hands," which is used almost as background music for a dramatic scene.
Hamlisch is the one composer generally able to find a style that is both contemporary and in the Broadway tradition. His music for "Smile" is not strong enough either way.
Anne Marie Bobby, who plays the reluctant contestant, is an extremely attractive actress, able to play the shy girl convincingly but with suitable musical comedy dash. Jodi Benson makes her troubled mentor equally appealing.
In the unpleasant role of the aggressive former winner, Marsha Waterbury really hasn't a chance - the writing is against her from the start. Jeff McCarthy, as her stiff husband, handles his role genially. Michael O'Gorman and Dick Patterson are funny in cliche comic roles.
Douglas Schmidt has a witty backdrop representing a plasticized Southern California landscape. His sets move fluidly to accommodate the crosscutting style of the book, but they aren't more flavorful than the material.
Blandness is an inevitable result of beauty contests, which entail all kinds of compromises. So do musicals. But blandness is not what you pay Broadway prices to see.
The basic trouble with the new beauty-pageant musical "Smile" is that it cannot decide whether to grin or to sneer.
Unfortunately, this over-styled confection at the Lunt-Fontanne, with music by Marvin ("A Chorus Line") Hamlisch and book and lyrics by Howard ("Little Shop of Horrors") Ashman, wears its ambivalence about its subject like the yellow badge of cowardice.
Which is a pity, because "Smile" has a great deal going for it. Indeed for some, hopefully for enough, it might prove sufficient.
We could do with a hit right now. And without doubt, in a musical season that has already seen dodo-birds like "Raggedy Ann" and "Into the Light," a musical of such crisp, sweet-and-sour professionalism as "Smile" could well seem to fly.
The notion behind this new musical is pretty smart. It is based on Jerry Belson's screenplay for Michael Ritchie's 1975 movie of the same name, which almost became a cult hit. But not quite.
The show is about a beauty pageant in a small California town. It is a microcosm of inner America, a reflection of the American dream, a testing ground for American values. Ha!
The motto of the contest, the sanguine ethics drummed into the competitors, is that competitive ideal of "going for gold and forming the future."
To win, the contestants are assured they need do nothing more than "be yourself and keep smiling." And the pageant itself is "not a beef show but a celebration of the youth of America."
Of course you know, Hamlisch knows, Ashman knows, and certainly Belson knew, that this is horse feathers. If a beauty pageant were "a celebration of the youth of America," young men would take part in it as well as young women, and it is not simply youth that is celebrated in a swimsuit.
The movie itself brought an affectionately ironic tone to the proceedings. But for this stage version to have succeeded, it probably needed to be tougher in its satire, more stringent in its humor.
Unsmilingly, "Smile" wants to have it both ways. At one moment it is trying to be a corrosively witty indictment of the false values promoted by beauty pageants - with a few side-swipes agains the cynical chicanery surrounding them - and the next moment it is trying to score brownie points with precisely the kind of spectacle it is supposedly making fun of.
The problem here is the old one of showing boredom without being boring, or, as it here has to be translated, to show tack without being tacky.
One can see why the notion of the show attracted Hamlisch. The pageant - with each girl having her individual story to add to the corporate entity - has something in common with the chorus line, and at times the composer seems to be retreading the path of his former triumph.
But the dramatic shape of "A Chorus Line" is not only perfect, it is also unrepeatable. Yes, Broadway gypsies compete for a show, just as these aspiring beauty queens compete for a crown, but the similarity ends right there. The same resonances do not exist for Miss Teenage America as for Broadway babies.
The need here is for a plot, and the plot provided by "Smile" is Cheshire-Cat wispy. The chief judge is as honest as a TV commercial is long, and believes in family, America, motherhood, and integrity. And everything that makes the moral majority regard itself as moral.
His sincerity is unquestionable. His wife, an ambitious former beauty queen and pageant organizer, is willing to bend principles for the larger issues of success. She will cheat a little.
Their young son is a potential sleaze artist who acquires illicit pictures of the girls in the shower for sale and humor. This is basically the trigger of the plot. Indeed, this is basically the plot itself.
Hamlisch's music is unmemorably cheerful, with little edge to it. It takes the all-purpose, show-style music and does nothing to it - unlike, for example, the custom-made transformations of pop that Charles Strouse achieved in "Bye Bye Birdie."
Ashman's direction, like his book, is efficient but totally colorless. It only comes to life in the character of the embittered choreographer played, so happily, by Michael Kidd in the movie and here given a terrific performance by a newcomer, Michael O'Gorman.
O'Gorman is, by far, the best thing in the show - his "wooden foot" story is the evening's highlight - and the rest of the cast performs energetically if, almost in the nature of things, charmlessly.
Anne Marie Bobby is the innocent contestant, Jodi Benson is the aspiring professional contestant (at the end she is still literally walking, ambivalently again, toward her star in the sky), Jeff McCarthy and Marsha Waterbury lead the hearty, so-called adults, and Dick Patterson makes a gruesomely over-routined (a nice cameo this) emcee.
The scenery by Douglas W. Schmidt and the costumes by William Ivey Long are adroit but unsurprising. So is the show.
The endearing passion to be found in ''Smile,'' the new musical at the Lunt-Fontanne, has little to do with beauty pageants, nubile teen-age girls, corrupted American values or any other subject that the show keeps claiming to be about. What clearly drives Howard Ashman, the author of the book and lyrics, and Marvin Hamlisch, the composer, is their deep affection for the lighthearted musical comedies of their youth - during the form's last, pre-rock-and-roll gasp of the late 1950's and early 1960's. In ''Smile,'' mementos of that sassy time can be found when its young women are gyrating in their dormitory cubicles (a la ''Bye Bye Birdie'') or delivering a comedy number before sinks in a washroom (''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'') or parading on a runway circling the orchestra pit early in Act II (''Hello, Dolly!''). And why not? As this Broadway season has demonstrated with a vengeance, there are many worse reasons to put on a show than sheer love of the musical's happier past.
But if the spirit is willing in ''Smile,'' the execution is weak. Though Mr. Ashman, the co-author of ''Little Shop of Horrors,'' and Mr. Hamlisch, the composer of ''A Chorus Line,'' possess the talent as well as the will to resurrect the good times, they have done so only for fleeting, scattered interludes. Schizoid in tone, dramatically diffuse and undistinguished in such crucial areas as music, dance and humor, this musical finally doesn't recall the winning entertainments of its chosen stylistic period so much as the perky, equally professional also-rans, like ''All American'' or ''Mr. President.'' When a show has more endings than it does numbers in its second act, that's a sure sign that it lacks creative vitality and an igniting point of view.
The musical's source is the 1975 film of the same title, about the shenanigans of the California finalists in a fictive Young American Miss competition. Even a decade ago, ''Smile'' seemed to be mocking an easy target; in the post-Vanessa Williams day, one wonders if Bert Parks or Phyllis George takes beauty pageants seriously anymore. This hasn't stopped Mr. Ashman, like the screenwriter Jerry Belson before him, from undertaking a painstaking and, at best, sporadically amusing spelling out of the obvious - namely, that the competition corrupts the ''old-fashioned ideals'' of sportsmanship and civic duty it ostensibly upholds. Nor are we spared spoofs of the girls' dreadful talent exhibitions. It would take the Jerome Robbins of ''Gypsy'' - not the perfunctory rather than parodistic choreography of Mary Kyte - to make farcical simulations of tacky beauty-pageant showmanship as pricelessly lunatic as the real thing.
In place of the well-drawn characters and clever numbers that might have lifted ''Smile'' above its premise's limitations, there is a convoluted plot populated by stereotypes. The progress of the pageant is almost lost as Mr. Ashman charts the vicissitudes of its local boosters, Brenda and Big Bob Freelander (Marsha Waterbury and Jeff McCarthy), who have their own empty ambitions for success, not to mention a bratty peeping Tom for a son. For reasons too boring to repeat, a dramatic high point in Act I is a dispute about the placement of a ramp in the pageant's talent show, while Act II offers a marital brawl in which Mrs. Freelander, previously a Stepford wife, suddenly confronts Big Bob with a feminist bill of demands. At that point, ''Smile'' inexplicably metamorphoses into a disillusioned Sondheim-Prince musical about the collapse of the Reagan era's American dream - but without the theatrical, thematic or musical substance to lend support or even credence to such dark ambitions.
By then, Mr. Hamlisch's music has all but petered out. While his score can be melodic, especially as peppily orchestrated, it's niggardly. Take away the pageant's pastiche show-biz numbers, and there's not a lot left. Mr. Ashman's impressively crafted lyrics, by contrast, sometimes achieve the sophisticated wit to which the music barely aspires. But just as Mr. Hamlisch's kick-line numbers for the contestants invite unflattering comparisons to ''A Chorus Line,'' so Mr. Ashman's most substantial character lyric, an ironic treatment of the plastic values enshrined by ''Disneyland,'' is a less subtle variation on a similarly sardonic anthem to 1950's suburbia, ''Somewhere That's Green,'' in his ''Little Shop.''
It's debatable whether Mr. Ashman was wise to direct ''Smile'' in addition to writing it. Perhaps another, more objective eye might have seen that Act II employs tedious talk where songs might have lightened the narrative load. While his staging is proficient, Mr. Ashman has miscast Michael O'Gorman in the show's choicest comic role (the cynical pageant choreographer wonderfully played by Michael Kidd in the film) and misdirected his two gifted young stars. Anne Marie Bobby, as the most innocent contestant, and Jodi Benson, as the worldliest, have been encouraged to emphasize single personality traits to the point where their performances flatten out. (One keeps hoping someone might tickle the fine but impossibly earnest Ms. Bobby to lighten her up.) The other 14 contestants, however competently played, are usually indistinct, though Ms. Waterbury and Mr. McCarthy find some warmth in the patronizingly presented Freelanders.
The designers - Douglas W. Schmidt (scenery), Paul Gallo (lighting), William Ivey Long (costumes) - airily capture both the pink-and-aquamarine ambiance of middle-class, small-town California and the storybook whimsy of old-time musicals, until they, too, must plunge into darkness. But just before that Act II descent, the authors and company unite in the number that most reveals what might have been. Led by Dick Patterson as the fiendishly smarmy third-rate television ''personality'' who serves as the pageant emcee, the girls sing a title song that not only delivers the show's satirical point but does so in levitating emulation of the same brassy show-biz style that's being sent up. For those few minutes, an audience feels how much fun it once was to watch ''I Believe in You'' in ''How to Succeed'' or ''The Telephone Hour'' in ''Bye Bye Birdie.'' Too many of the other smiles in ''Smile,'' like those of its beauty-pageant contestants, are forced.