Comic, Tragic, Tedious

Nun is fun and Phantom sings. But Taking Steps, alas, stumbles.

Equally Ayckbournian is that in place of true humor there's an endless array of gags: Elizabeth makes a number of penmanship mistakes in writing her Dear John letter -- cabbage for courage being the unfortunate example that winds its way through the play -- mistaken identities abound and all the actors are forced to swallow their dignity and hop up imaginary stairs. The first time around, this antic earned a smattering of laughs. But by the fiftieth, that small portion of the audience that had successfully fended off sleep didn't crack a smile.

Things lit up a bit with the entrance of Dan Daily as Roland, the unlucky husband. A tall actor with a craggy face, Daily holds the center together, allowing the rest of the cast to reflect off him for both laughs and Three Stooges-style stunts. As Kitty, Chelsea Altman is both lovely and funny, especially when she takes on the stunted speech pattern of the timid solicitor. But this production's meager charms end there, and one can't help but feel the evening might have been better, and more entertainingly, spent riding the express elevators at the Hyatt Regency.

In its sixth year of existence, playwright Arthur Kopit and composer Maury Yeston's Phantom -- not to be confused with Andrew Lloyd Webber's bloated and overwrought Phantom of the Opera -- is still a sweet ride of a musical, long on corny humor and full of songs that, while not necessarily the sort that stick with you outside the theater, are emotionally grounded in this revamping of Gaston Leroux's famous story.

The many reasons why TUTS has restaged Phantom -- among them that it's grossed $100 million during its rather brief lifetime -- matter less than director Philip McKinley's savvy in bringing back the original leads: Glory Crampton as Christine and Richard White as the Phantom. There's a certain satisfaction in seeing the performers who are featured on the Phantom CD perform live, but more important, the pair are simply well suited for their roles. Crampton is bright and endearing as Christine, with a lilting singing voice that carries her character's signature song, "Melodie de Paris," throughout the production. As her passionate voice instructor, White is just scary enough to be the Phantom, and his richly textured voice is a nice contrast to Crampton's. As the jealous, controlling diva Carlotta, Patti Allison gets the best of Kopit's dark humor, cackling over wicked potions, standing up to the Phantom and plotting Christine's demise.

But what's most appealing is the tragic story of Flora, the Phantom's mother. Told by the former manager of the opera house, the tale is pantomimed in dance; the result is a fetching stage picture, one that combines a compelling narrative with a soft, backward glance to Flora's first, happy years with her disfigured offspring.

This is also a very pretty production -- from the women's delicate, straight-bodiced gowns to the Phantom's various masks, each more elaborate than the last. Phantom plays like vintage musical theater, and it has an impact far more pleasing than that produced by the truckloads of hydraulic stage equipment and the giant chandelier of that other Phantom.

The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun plays through February 16 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.

Taking Steps plays through January 26 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-9341.

Phantom plays through January 19 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, 622-1626.

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