A few minutes into Lincoln Center Theater's misguided new musical "The Glorious Ones," it becomes apparent that the title is not ironic. No, indeed: For co-writers Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), the show's subjects — members of a 16th-century commedia dell'arte troupe — are everyman heroes bound for glory and immortality.
Why? Because they are actors — members of that rare, courageous breed who go "without bread" to make others feel deeply. And in so doing, they "make the whole world laugh."
But the undercooked commedia dell'arte bits performed during the 90 minutes of "The Glorious Ones" are not even clever enough to support that grating claim. Even if one buys into the notion that some actors achieve immortality through their art, these actors don't.
The reason that the shows's commedia acts lack punch is clear enough. Ms. Ahrens and Mr. Flaherty have resurrected the crude, mask-wearing vagabonds of late 1500s Italy — not out of some abiding love for that tradition, but as window-dressing for a paintby-number tale of backstage envy.
Handsome as Graciela Daniele's production is, it's a misstep for the usually dependable Lincoln Center Theater. Ms. Daniele stages the action admirably and furnishes the actors with flavorful choreography; Mara Blumenfeld's costumes and Dan Ostling's charming wooden stage (beneath Tiepolo clouds) are above reproach. But their talents feel squandered on what is essentially a tale of squabbling co-workers with big egos.
Sadly, those squabbles are not even dramatized, but merely narrated. Flaminio Scala (Marc Kudisch) wastes no time in stating that he means to make his name immortal. Cue the talented upstart Francesco Andreini (Jeremy Webb), who from his first entrance is singing about the son who eventually has to usurp his father. To no one's surprise, Francesco is soon making a takeover bid; indignity of indignities, he wants to shift the troupe from improvisation to scripted plays.
That's about as much plot as "The Glorious Ones" has — the better to make room for schmaltzy ballads with titles such as "Opposite You," "My Body Wasn't Why," and "I Was Here."
More disappointing are the lazzi, slapstick skits revolving around bawdy jokes and stock types (the quack doctor, the harlequin, the sexy maiden). As the doctor and the pint-sized jester, respectively, ensemble members John Kassir and Julyana Soelistyo manage to drag a whiff of the ripe streets of 16th-century Venice into the proceedings. Mr. Kassir's clever bits of mime and Ms. Soelistyo's spoton scampering and mugging make contact with the form's circus roots. But those piquant moments only serve to draw attention to the general flatness of the skits.
Mr. Flaherty's score has some of the same troubles as the book. The songs are competent without being memorable, and seldom venture to capture a sound that might be linked either to commedia or to Renaissance Italy.
Ms. Daniele does her level best to animate "The Glorious Ones," and it's to her credit that this thin soup passes for a light meal. But there isn't much to be done for a musical about the glories of entertainment that fails to entertain.
Until January 6 (150 W. 65th St., between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, 212-239-6200).