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Comic, Tragic, Tedious

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

Drag has a long history in theater. From The Trojan Women to Torch Song Trilogy, actors have bravely stuffed their size twelves into pumps, shaved extra close and applied blush from cheekbone to jaw in preparation for telling the whole, dirty truth. Sister Coco -- a.k.a. actor Jimmy Phillips -- is precisely such a creation, and it is largely his performance as the show's narrator that carries Theater LaB's production of The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun to such insane levels of delight. This satirical tragicomedy details, in a wildly fictional fashion, the life of Sister Luc-Gabrielle, who wrote and performed the 1963 number one hit "Dominique," a song that somewhat impertinently eulogized the life of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order.

As is its custom, Theater LaB has outcamped camp, creating a show that's so far over the top that, at times, it's hard to find the thread of Sister Luc-Gabrielle's biography. Such an approach seems to perfectly match the intent of playwright Blair Fell, who dropped a series of stock characters into his play: the earnest lesbian, the lascivious priest, the wicked mother superior and the sympathetic narrator. All this means that director Bill McDonald has a naughty show on his hands, as well as a show that occasionally feels a bit closer to Saturday Night Live than it does to theater.

Still, those elements that are most skitlike -- a gowned Ken doll pops up in an alcove as St. Dominic; Father Lyon sports a rhinestone cross that dangles in front of his fly; the Mother Superior wears a dress slit up to her hip; Sister Luc-Gabrielle swings around a huge padded derriere -- prove themselves fine tools in the hands of the able cast. For all her painfully loud whining, Jessica Calvello is a fine Sister Luc-Gabrielle, moving her large posterior around with believable awkwardness and finishing each of her scenes with a pitiable, yet grotesque, expression that serves as a tableau of the nun's trying circumstances.

As Sister Coco, Phillips keeps the production, and the story, on track, despite the occasional swerve into her days before the convent, when she was a chaste high fashion model. Her former photographer and current (not to mention forbidden) love interest, Father Lyon, is played by Christian DeVries as a velvety voiced disco king of a priest: tanned, fit and at the ready when the opportunity for love presents itself. For all of its lewd jokes, The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun keeps sacred the repressed lesbian tendencies of its title character -- poor Sister Luc-Gabrielle doesn't have a chance at true love until the play's last, tragic moments. The object of her ardor is a happy Belgian Girl Scout named Annie Peaches, played with relentless cheeriness by Bethany Daniels. And why not be cheery? Somebody has to balance Sister Luc-Gabrielle's doom and gloom. "One should never," the little nun tells her friend, "run from extreme pain or sorrow. It's God's little way of saying 'I love you.' "

The Singing Nun has its best moments in the clever dialogue -- "We're terribly happy," Sister Coco notes of her clandestine relationship with Father Lyon, "but we're fiction." But McDonald's production occasionally misses its mark. An irritating ratcheting sound cranks up every time the Mother Superior slinks across the floor; Janice Dickard's performance as Sister Luc-Gabrielle's mother falls embarrassingly flat; and almost every scene between Sister Luc-Gabrielle and Annie is uncomfortably loud. If this is style, enough of it, already.

Given the actors' command of the play's physical humor and witty repartee, these intermittent weaknesses are forgivable. Irreverence is a good enough reason for theater to happen, and The Singing Nun has it in big enough doses to make even former Catholics blush, and to keep audiences satisfied for a good, long while.

The Alley's current production, Alan Ayckbourn's comedy Taking Steps, also attempts irreverence, but it doesn't quite make the cut. The Alley debuted this comedy of manners in 1983, but that history doesn't resonate, especially since this Taking Steps is basically a farmed-out show: Director Michael Bloom is in from Austin, while the actors -- with the notable exception of Rutherford Cravens, who shows up frequently on the Alley's stages -- are in from New York. And despite offering up a few solid performances, Bloom and company create a deadly dull Taking Steps, one that unfortunately makes all too believable Ayckbourn's well-known boast that he writes all his plays in two weeks.

Ayckbourn is frequently compared to Noel Coward, probably because he treats upper-class characters in varying states of marital and financial woe with lighthearted farce. Taking Steps doesn't stray from his formula: The play opens on Elizabeth, a dancer who has tired of her husband Roland and is packing to leave while trying to convince her brother, Mark, to stick around and console her spouse. Mark, of course, has his own relationship troubles, given that his fiancee, Kitty, has had a bit of trouble with the police. Drop into this scenario a timid solicitor who has come to settle the sale of the house Elizabeth and Roland are renting and the eager-to-sell owner, and you have a typically intertwined Ayckbourn plot.

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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