"In Circles," the Al Carmines-Gertrude Stein musical that opened Thursday at the Round House Theatre, is like a lavishly gift-wrapped box with nothing inside. The sets are bright and charming, the music delightful, the performers adequate--and after the hour or so that the show lasts, the net result is a big: huh?

Stein, of course, is famous for writing collections and selections of words that frequently have no meaning beyond their sound. Sometimes the sounds are intriguing: a "terra cotta town." Sometimes they are sentences hanging in space: "Mrs. de Manzie has adopted a child." In 1920 she wrote "A Circular Play," and many years later Al Carmines put it to music, using a variety of familiar styles from swing to gospel.

Basically it is a set of words that has no meaning, collective or otherwise. Five minutes of nonsensical non sequiturs is one thing; an hour is quite another. "Teeth are sincerely regretted," says one character. Another announces in a half dozen different expressions, "and women are that." They dance, they chat, they have solos, and it's all supposed to be charmingly wacky.

There are times when one wishes the words were in a foreign language so the music could take over. Carmines has a real gift for composing music that is as accessible as Stein's writing is inaccessible. Even when he is imitating a particular style he is original. Yet ultimately, it seems a self-indulgent exercise, a way of writing a musical without having to think about a plot.

The Round House company handles the singing and elementary dancing competently. Of the group, only Michael Howell reveals an exceptional voice, although Caron Tate, Claudia Neely and Tucker Ewing have their moments.

IN CIRCLES. By Gertrude Stein and Al Carmines, directed by Jeffrey Davis, music directed by Roy Barber, choreography by Claudia Neely, set by Douglas A. Cumming, costumes by Leslie-Marie Cocuzzo, lights by Geoffrey L. Grob, with Mike Howell, Roy Barber, Sarah Marshall, Greta Lambert, Mark Jaster, Joan Phalen, Tucker Ewing, Michael Littman, Gerry Paone and Caron Tate.

At the Round House through May 29.