Oz, Against All Odds

PHAMALy puts on a whiz of a Wiz.

Wilson finds that his cast's disabilities inspire innovative touches. "There are a million moments when we come up against a challenge that's different from a challenge you might normally have," he explains. Juliet Villa, his Dorothy, is visually impaired, for example, which could have made the scene where she throws water at Evillene, the wicked witch, a minor disaster. In the original version of The Wiz, the Lion sets down the bucket beside Dorothy, but PHAMALy's Lion, Don Mauck, is himself visually impaired (which led to a fascinating moment during rehearsal when he deliberately whacked himself on the back of the head and his specially designed cats' eyes popped out). So Wilson has the Tin Girl (Regan Linton, PHAMALy's version of the Tin Man) hand Dorothy the bucket, then position herself in such a way that Villa knows the witch is right in front of her.

Toto is played by Villa's guide dog, Deidra.

Wilson has thought long and hard about the dramatic significance of a visually impaired Dorothy. Blindness can help explain her isolation at the beginning of the tale, and if -- as one interpretation has it -- Oz exists only in Dorothy's imagination, it makes sense that she would people it with others who are handicapped. Frank Baum's Oz books are very visual, Wilson points out, and in the Judy Garland movie, the action begins in black and white before blossoming into color when Dorothy enters Oz. In The Wiz, Oz shows Dorothy new ways of viewing herself and the world, and her last spoken line is "Don't you all see?"

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

Wilson is very aware that some of his actors face huge difficulties just getting out of bed, dressing and reaching the theater. Nonetheless, he insists on professional standards. "I don't see myself as working with a bunch of disabled actors," he says. "I'm working with actors." But he admits that knowing what his cast members have gone through to achieve their dramatic triumphs sometimes moves him deeply.

PHAMALy has assembled a skilled group of technical artists. Mallory Nelson designs the costumes -- including a skirt for Evillene, played by Tara Cowan, that goes clear around both Cowan and her wheelchair. The Denver Center Theatre Company's Matt Swartz is in charge of sound, and Charles Dean Packard designs lighting and sets. For this show, he has created a slightly raised stage with ramps for exits and entrances. "People are never put off in a corner because somebody doesn't know how to work with that disability," Westerman explains. "It may take longer to figure it out, but they figure it out. I know a wheelchair can't move sideways, but I know how to make it look like it's moving sideways."

Leonard Barrett, who plays the Wiz, is a hugely talented and profoundly instinctual actor, wise and playful on stage, with a fluidly exciting singing voice. While most people play the Wiz for comedy, "I'm enjoying the idea of playing it for pathos," he says. "I like the multi-dimensional layering of a part." He became interested in theater at his high school in Philadelphia, when a friend dragged him to an audition and he found himself cast as Felix in The Odd Couple. On graduation, he applied to only one acting school -- Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, because he'd heard it was the best -- and was accepted. Ever restless, though, he left the program. At his brother's suggestion, he began singing in Atlantic City. "I didn't know I could sing," he comments. "I threw a band together and started killing my voice. Then, by trial and error, I found the correct way of doing it."

He got bored. He didn't like the kinds of songs the Atlantic City gigs demanded; he preferred jazz. He came to Denver, started teaching computer software classes and didn't step onto a stage for ten years -- although he did perform and teach drama for his church group. There he met a young man who took him to see PHAMALy's Pajama Game, and was bowled over. He attended a PHAMALy Valentine's Day party, where someone found out he could sing and asked him to perform. He did, a cappella. After that, he remembers, "I'm surrounded. They're like, 'What's your disability?' I said, 'I've been diagnosed with MS,' and they said, 'That's good enough.'"

Although PHAMALy members pressed him to audition for Guys and Dolls, Barrett had no intention of doing it. But just as he was leaving the party, he says, "Kathleen Traylor rolls up in her wheelchair and puts her arms round my neck, pulls me down and whispers, 'Please come,' and my heart melted."

Barrett played Sky Masterson, to rave reviews. Again, he learned on the job, finding a more lyrical approach to the songs. "I accepted myself as a singer from that time on," he says. "I felt at home, and I've never felt at home in theater before. The PHAMALy people are beautiful. There's a clarity in them and a genuineness that you don't find anywhere else."

Because of his multiple sclerosis, Barrett sometimes has trouble with words. "When they go by really fast, I get muckle-mouthed," he notes. "With symptoms like these, you feel odd. To be in an environment where that kind of odd is okay, yeah, that helps a lot. Nobody else can quite understand like PHAMALy can. When you go to another environment and they hear you're from PHAMALy, the first question is, 'What's wrong with you?' Odd how the outside world seems to not do the math that these individuals can do it and get to rehearsals and pull it off. I mean, did you see the show last year? They can do anything. All it takes is a little ramp to get them up there."

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