Dance: 3, Looks: 3

After those first few piano notes sound as the lights come up on the panicked dancers of A Chorus Line, the audience should get hit with a full-on assault on the eardrums. As written, the opening song, "I Hope I Get It,'' is a big blast of noise combining music, the voice of a pushy choreographer barking "5, 6, 7, 8!'' at a stage crowded with bodies and the sound of dozens of Capezios pounding the boards in unison. At Plano's Courtyard Theatre, where the Plano Repertory company is attempting the '70s musical, the performance on opening night began not with that anticipated BAM! but with a pitiful sort of pffft.

This production seems muffled all the way around. The orchestra is tucked away in some cranny so far from the stage they sound like they're playing from the park down the street. Even on the whopper numbers, the horns and drums are nearly inaudible. Onstage, the 24 performers, with only a couple of exceptions, appear to work at half the power they need to really put something this ambitious across. For a show about 16 young dancers trying desperately to earn roles in a Broadway musical, the singer-dancers in Plano never give it that full-out, I'm-the-next-Kelly-Clarkson effort this show demands. One strains to hear dialogue. They sing in a whisper. They pull back their dancing, too, a mortal sin in a show dedicated to the work of professional dancers.

Developed in a workshop by choreographer Michael Bennett in the mid-1970s, A Chorus Line went on to win every major award on Broadway and ran for 15 years. With its score of now-familiar music by Marvin Hamlisch and words by Edward Kleban, the show remains a timeless celebration of the nameless "gypsies" who populate the dance corps on the Great White Way.

The Plano cast, sad to say, includes only a couple of hoofers who might be allowed to audition, much less be chosen, for a real Broadway show. The rest are too-short, too-hefty, too-clumsy, too-old wannabes, some of whom can sing just fine but dance like they have two left hooves.

One who gets it right is the statuesque Shannon Dalton as the imperious Sheila, the veteran dancer turning 30 and not too thrilled about it. Dalton's a goddess in her shimmery gold leotard, going through the steps with the tired attitude of a jaded pro. Young Jana Kelly delights as the fidgety Kristine, the newlywed who performs the comic patter-song "Sing!'' to prove that she can't. Pigtailed Lindsay Hand goes to town as Val, the once-homely tapper who sings "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three'' (what her audition cards used to say) to show off her new surgically enhanced "orchestra and balcony.''

In what's usually considered the starring role, Missy Matherne is an inadequate Cassie, the former feature dancer reduced to trying out for a spot in the chorus. Matherne displays a lovely singing voice in Cassie's big tune "The Music and the Mirror,'' but when she goes into the lengthy dance solo, she's out of her element, lacking the long line or technique to carry it off.

This production of A Chorus Line needs to kick it up a notch.

The Last Session, being done now by the Uptown Players at the Trinity River Arts Center, is top-notch all around, a bitter, funny, surprisingly touching little musical that sends you out not humming the tunes, but brimming with the emotions they stir up.

Themes of the piece are acceptance and forgiveness. Gideon (played by Scott A. Eckert), a gay pop-music writer and publisher once known as "the Baptist Barry Manilow,'' invites backup singers Tryshia and Vicki (Denise Lee, Sara Shelby-Martin) to help him record some new compositions in a small basement studio in Burbank. Only he and recording engineer Jim (Ted Wold) know that it is the eve of Gideon's planned suicide. Years of fighting AIDS have left him depleted and hopeless, and he seems determined to use this musical soiree as "the perfect last meal.''

Each song Gideon and the singers lay down reveals a little more about his life story. They're preceded by short monologues spoken to Gideon's absent lover, Jack. Goodbye notes for other friends are all ready, too, waiting to be handed out by engineer Jim after Gideon's fatal dose of pills has done its work.

With music and lyrics by Steve Schalchlin and book by Jim Brochu, The Last Session is rich with musical high points, but its plot is wispy. To get an antagonist into the mix, writer Brochu employs the most cliché character choice: the homophobe.

Joining Gideon's backup singers is Buddy (Jeff Kinman), a golly-gee young hick with a powerful voice and a Bible in his backpack. Within minutes of his arrival in the studio, Buddy's preaching fire and brimstone to Gideon, quoting Leviticus about abomination and screeching that homosexuals are condemned to backstroke in the fiery lakes of hell.

Shut up and sing, Gideon tells Buddy, who says he'll try to "hate the sin and love the sinner''--besides, he needs the gig to launch his singing career. As a device for mouthing bigoted rhetoric, Buddy's too much the symbol and too little a fully drawn human being. The friction between him and Gideon is manufactured too hastily and, anyway, we know that in a show like this, there's a big hug of understanding waiting for its cue in Act 2.

Schalchlin's good music and clever lyrics more than make up for the weak story line. His words provide witty, often deeply sarcastic glimpses into Gideon's personal struggles, from coming out to his parents in "The Preacher and the Nurse'' to his litany of failed HIV treatments in "Somebody's Friend,'' which attacks spurious alternative medicines, the moonstones, herbs and "bugs from England'' that always are said to have cured "the friend of somebody's friend.''

The best song, "Connected,'' is a solo for Gideon, a soaring, emotional anthem about love and friendship. Eckert, who also plays keyboards on every song, has a fine voice and goes all out on the one number in the show that has a catchy, Manilovian hook.

Brochu lightens up the angry dialogue with plenty of good one-liners. "I would rather be me with AIDS than have to be you without it,'' Gideon snarls at the pious Buddy.

Backup singers Tryshia and Vicki (constantly decanting cocktails from an array of Thermoses) playfully backbite when they're not belting tunes. "I have the body of a 20-year-old,'' Vicki boasts. To which Tryshia shoots back, "Well, you better give it back cuz you're wrinkling the hell out of it.''

A little bit preachy, but often funny and deeply affecting, The Last Session looks at one good man's life and how he weighs the reasons for postponing its finale.