After the cast of "Carmelina" had taken its third curtain call last Friday night, a small man with an oblong head entered stage left, and was promptly met by a cloudburst of applause.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced in the precisely fashioned words and mellow base notes that are, with that famous head, his trademark, "my name is Jose Ferre. I'm the very fortunate man who directed this play, and I know it's not customary for a director to come out and intrude here . . . but Monday morning, we got some very bad news from the gentlemen of the press and it seems that you disagree with them."

At this, a preponderance of the audience hollered what appeared to be hearty approval of Ferrer's sentiments (although their response to some of the show itself had been distinctly more lukewarm).

"Naturally," continued Ferrer, "they are entiled to their opinion. But so are you ."

This was greeted by another, only slightly less eager shriek.

" . . . So I hereby appoint each and every one of you to be a good-will ambassador for this play," Ferrer declared, "and the way to do it is to use Ma Bell."

Thus enraged against the New Yrik critics who had given "Carmelina" such short shrift, the audience left the theater with a sense of mission and a readiness, presumably, to run up the phone bill. But less than a week later, their mission was in danger of being scrubbed. Producer Roger L. Stevens, having removed one closing notice, now posted a second one. While he and his associates weighed the prospects for turning a critical flop into an audience hit, they also worried, understandably, about throwing good money after bad.

Back home for an opening at the Kennedy Center early last week, Stevens startled an audience of college actors, writers and directors with his own spontaneous swipe at the press, adding apologetically: "I'm suffering from bad-critic fever this week because I had a little trouble in New York." He had insisted, too, that not once in his 2k years as a producer had he seen such an unaccountable discrepancy between a warm audience response and a cold critical one.

A producer's rhetoric should be adjusted for a certain hyperbole factor in such painful circumstances. "Carmelina" is neither the first nor, by a longshot, the best musical ever threatened with an early demise. But the toll would be no less real or substantial because there are precedents.

For Stevens and his backers, closing "Carmelina" means bidding a formal farewell to a roughly $1-million investment. For Cesare Siepi, Georgia Brown and dozens of supporting players, musicians and crew members, unemployment waits in the wings-brief in some cases, sustained in others. And for Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, who wrote "Carmelina's" score, three years of work could be consigned to the small print of the Broadway data heap.

An abrupt closing also might mean there is never an original cast album or printed sheet music (unless a song or two happen to acquire lives of their own.) "Carmelina" could conceivably never be performed anywhere again-except perhaps in a few nostalgic heads.

The theater, when it has a mind to, can bury its dead very deeply.

But it is not so clear, in "Carmelina's" case, that the critics should be regarded as killers rather than mere vultures circling the death site.

When "Carmelina" began its pre-Broadway adventures in Wilmington, barely two months ago, it was a slightly lunkheaded musical with a pretty score and a crackerjack premise-welfare fraud, Italian-style, perpetrated by an unmarried wartime mother upon three generous, gulible American ex-GIs. The lyrics included such inspired specimens as this, from Georgia Brown's show-stopper.

"I'm a woman/Not a pinch on the behind/I'm a woman/I don't need to go and find/Some gorilla/With a villa/And live happ'ly ever after with a kill-ah. "

Costar Cesare Siepi, it is true, was having problems with a foreign language, English, and an even more foreign skill, acting; and the show's first act took forever to get a move-on; and the town and townspeople had approximately the intellectual depth of a can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli. But in Ferrr, Lane, Lerner, co-librettist Joseph Stein and Co., we were dealing with pros, people who would lock themselves up in their hotel rooms, lash themselves to their typewriters and pianos, and-with a cry of "Once more unto the breach, mon ami!"-proceed to chuck whole scenes out the window.

Not to worry, said the veteran road-watchers.

Six weeks later, the "Carmelina" that arrived at the St. James Theatre on Manhattan's 44th Street was still, inexplicably, the same slightly lunkheaded musical with the same sweet spots and the same dead spots. Some thing had happened-or rather, not happened-along the way. "Carmelina's" creators can doubtless produce a list of insertions and deletions as long as Rip Van Winkle's beard, but whether a detached observer could identify more than a few of these addjustments is an iffy proposition.

This detached observer believes, for instance, that somewhere between Wilmington and New York, a fourth GI-representing all the GIs who had returned to the little town of San Forino for their reunion-was discarded and subsequently restored to Act One, Scene 6. And I am fairly sure of the addition of abrief but jolly sequence about why American tourists are so prone to buy tiny bottles of Chianti. "What do they do with them?" asks one townsperson. "They buy them," explains nother. "Why?" persists the first. "They're tourists!" is the exasperated, final reply.

Also in the shakedown process, Carmelina's American admirers became a more distinguishable threesome, and their bedroom-farce maneuvers at the end of Act One grew noticeably sprightlier. And a brief opening scene with Siepi and Brown trading prayers in church disappeared completely.

But the authors and their director seemed, after all was said and sung, to have gone for the fine-tuning knob a bit prematurely-before they had quite found their station. "Carmelina" was to be a romantic musical about a man and woman in love. Terrific.How could anyone object to that? Except that no one-no one on the writing end, that is-appeared to have given much though to just what the rather uncommunicative couple portrayed by Siepi and Brown were supposed to find so attractive about each other.

Secretiveness, deception and repression seemed to be the thematic menaces in "Carmelina," but these were matters scarcely touched on by its score. Instead, we an absolutely off-the-wall number called "Love Before Breakfast" (including the preposterous lines, "Only a sunbeam could feel as I do/When love before breakfast is you") that managed to survive without significant alteration through all those weeks on the road. Nor did the librettists do anything to eliminate the repetition, and the ethnic insult, involved in making dimwittendness the main character trait of three of the principal Italians in the story (the tavernkeeper played by Siepi, the housekeeper played by Grace Keagy and the fisherman played by Joseph d'Angerio).

What goes on, and fails to go on, behind the scenes of a mammoth music-al-comedy enterprise like this one is invariably a bountiful source of informed and uninformed speculation. Just before "Carmelina" opened in New York, rumors had almost every imaginable permutation of participants not (or barely) talking to each other-a charge that the lyricist and composer seemed curiously uninterested in refuting when it was leveled their way. Another reliable report said the certain possible changes were rendered less possible by a clause in Siepi's contract guaranteeing that all his songs would stay his and, what's more, stay put.

If any significant fraction of the tales told about "Carmelina" are true, this show was obliged to confront far more enemies within than without. And the empirical evidence of the finished product indicates that it failed to confront those enemies. No general marched to the head of the column to wave his troops into line, or if he did, the troops weren't listening.

What "Carmelina" may have needed was a bit of the backstage humility and team spirit depicted in the movie "The Band Wagon." Jack Buchanan, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant, you may recall, have gone to New Haven with a horrendous musical version of "Faust" that lays a quite literal egg. At the opening night wake, after a reasonable amount of boozing, Buchanan (as the director) emerges from hiding to confess that his concept was all wet, urges the company to start over from scratch, and asks permission to stay on as part of the supporting cast.

Or perhaps the economics of the musical theater have outgrown the old routine of packaging a team of songwriters, a property, a pair of stars and a director, then handing them a million dollars and an opening date. Even Broadway, when it comes to straight plays, is doing fewer and fewer wholly original productions; it is using off-Broadway, regional theaters, workshops and, of course, Joseph Papp as its testing ground. Let others make the mistakes and make them more modestly, appears to be the philosophy.

Had that philosophy prevailed with the creators of "Carmelina," they might have tried the show out in some barn or garage, and had the luxury of being able to go wrong. Their admirers, even now, could be looking forward to the full-scale nand much reworked) version next season, or the season after.

Instead, we may have to settle for the fleeting pleasure of trying to whistle a half-forgotten tune.

The play closed last night .