Oz, Against All Odds

PHAMALy puts on a whiz of a Wiz.

Actress Lucy Roucis, who's playing the witch Addaperle in The Wiz, her thirteenth production with the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors' League (PHAMALy), has a standup routine about the pros and cons of her Parkinson's disease, which she recites softly during a break in rehearsal:

Pro: Killer parking spaces.

Con: Inability to drive to killer parking spaces.

Juliet Villa and Deidra overcome all obstacles to lead 
PHAMALy's cast of The Wiz.
Juliet Villa and Deidra overcome all obstacles to lead PHAMALy's cast of The Wiz.


Presented by PHAMALy through July 30, 303-893-4100, www.phamaly.org
Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex

Pro: Inadvertent movement and medication burn so many calories that you can eat anything you want.

Con: Except soup.

Pro: You're never asked to babysit.

Con: If you offer to hold the kid for just a minute, he ends up in that tree over there.

Pro: Superstrength sexual muscles.

Con: Superstrength sexual muscles.

Two years ago, Roucis played Adelaide in PHAMALy's Guys and Dolls and made the role her own. Her Adelaide took tiny steps and shook now and then. But she sang beautifully, acted with conviction, and exuded an unaffected strength and sweetness that entirely seduced the audience. Roucis's illness is progressive, and she can do less every year. An aide comes to her house three times a day to wash dishes and help her shower. She still teaches children's acting classes, though -- children are wonderful about her disability, she says, simultaneously intrigued and accepting, and always wanting to help. And in addition to performing, she serves as a coach for PHAMALy. The Wiz, the company's seventeenth production, opens July 14, and director Steve Wilson has completed two blocking plans for Roucis because she never knows in advance how much movement she'll have or whether she'll be able to walk.

Roucis was an acting major at Denver's now-defunct Loretto Heights College, then moved to Los Angeles. Although she was more drawn to classical theater, she found herself performing in musicals, including a Rockettes Christmas show. The diagnosis of Parkinson's came when she was 27, and she returned to Denver, defeated. But after she saw a TV piece on PHAMALy, she decided to audition. When Roucis performs, other PHAMALy members say, the adrenaline kicks in, and her work is radiant. "Giving to the community is the best thing I can do to keep from freaking out," she says simply.

Although there are theater companies in the United States organized around specific disabilities -- the National Theatre of the Deaf, for example -- PHAMALy is the only group working with published scripts that uses actors with all kinds of disabilities and uses only disabled actors. The company was started by Kathleen Traylor, Teri Westerman and two of their classmates at Boettcher School, Gregg Vigil and Kevin Ahl. A teacher at that Denver public school had exposed them to musical theater, but after graduating, they realized there were no acting opportunities for people with disabilities. So they decided to create their own. Having decided on a name for their company and acquired non-profit status, Traylor submitted a $3,000 grant application to the Colorado Council on the Arts. "They gave us the money first time out," Westerman says. "And we realized, 'Oh, my goodness, now we have to do a show.'"

That first production took place at their old high school, which had a handicapped-accessible stage. As for casting, "Kathleen and I would be in a shopping mall, and if we saw anyone with any kind of disability, we'd go up and say, 'Are you a performer?'" Westerman recalls. Now PHAMALy auditions attract more actors than the company can use.

Generations of acting teachers have told students how important it is to live "in the moment" on stage -- to be present and able to respond to whatever is happening without anticipating your next line or action or worrying about how you've done so far. Often the most compelling moments in a performance occur when the actor is completely immersed in a specific task -- putting on a coat, eating toast -- or when he faces an unanticipated glitch, such as a missing prop, a flubbed line or a partner who's changed the blocking on him. PHAMALy actors tend to be present in a highly focused and particular way. Whether singing, laughing, shouting or simply moving across the stage, they give the performance everything they have.

Watching PHAMALy at work isn't an exercise in sentimentality or compassion; what you get is real theater, powerful and joyous. And it's not that the performers triumph in spite of their disabilities. Just as Roucis's faltering steps made her Adelaide memorable, the other performers' physical weaknesses add dimension and piquancy to their work. Singing can be difficult for someone in a wheelchair; it's hard to support the voice, because "everything is kind of crushed," Traylor points out. So when she has a sentimental ballad -- as she did in Guys and Dolls and does again in The Wiz -- musical director Donna Kolpan Debreceni rearranges the music, shortening the phrases. The song sounds new -- less sentimental and, paradoxically, more moving.

Westerman, who's playing several roles in The Wiz, has danced in her wheelchair since she was eleven years old and now performs with Ballet Arts Center in Denver and the Berthoud Dance Company. Four years ago, she went to Belgium to learn wheelchair ballroom dancing -- which is very popular overseas, she says, though little known in this country. She and her partner learned to waltz, tango, quickstep and fox-trot, rehearsed for eight days and became the first Americans to enter an international competition. They won fourth place.

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