I first saw Leonard Barrett in 2004, when he was starring as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, staged by the Phamaly Theatre Company at the Space Theatre at the Denver Center. His performance was intriguing, stylish and poised, yet at the same time entirely his own: He knew how to own the stage, and his singing was original, a sort of jazzy variation on what you usually get from musical comedy performers. Over the years, one particular moment stuck with me: Barrett had ascended one of the stairways that run up from the stage through the audience and was standing at the top, singing, when an audience member dropped her purse almost directly at his feet. I froze. It takes deep concentration to perform, and everyone knows — or should — that it’s taboo to distract an actor in the middle of a scene. But this obnoxious woman went a step further. She tugged on Barrett’s trouser leg, pointed to the purse, and indicated he should pick it up. A second’s pause and then, still singing, he turned and adjusted focus. It was Sky Masterson who handed over the purse with a small, courteous flourish.
Barrett laughs when I remind him of this. He doesn’t remember the incident, but says, “It sounds like something I would do.”
Phamaly is a Colorado treasure, a theater company made up entirely of performers with disabilities, perhaps the only such company in the country. These disabilities range from obviously disabling to barely perceptible on a stage, though they may be severe. Barrett has multiple sclerosis. Some years ago, the company fielded a deaf Dorothy who sang like an angel in The Wizard of Oz; she was accompanied by a blind Cowardly Lion. The slight tremor you noticed in Adelaide during Guys and Dolls added a vulnerable, sexy-sweet touch to Lucy Roucis’s portrayal. And no one who saw 2009's Man of La Mancha can forget the rape scene during which a wheelchair-bound Aldonza, played by Regan Linton, was thrown violently to the floor and then spent several agonizing minutes crawling away from her tormenters.
Linton, who was left paralyzed by a car accident she suffered as an undergraduate, is now the company’s artistic director. She still hears comments about that particular scene. “People talk about how it must have been so challenging,” she says. “Actually, it was freeing. It felt like a time when I could be liberated as a performer and ratcheted me up to the next level.”
This year Phamaly marks its thirtieth anniversary, and the company has been through many changes over the years. It was on the brink of going under two and a half years ago, when Linton took over. Now stable, Phamaly received a 2019 grant from the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression program, which is intended to “uncover stories we haven’t heard before and elevate voices that have been marginalized, distorted, ignored, or silenced.”
The company is mounting Chicago as its summer musical, with Linton directing. In the past, these musicals have taken place in the Space Theatre in the Denver Center, but because of ongoing construction, Chicago will be presented in the Studio Loft in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Barrett, who was also Don Quixote to Linton’s Aldonza, plays the wily, crooked lawyer, Billy Flynn.
Chicago is "a darker selection," Linton notes. "Phamaly has usually done more family-friendly shows, but sometimes we have to take risks and show that people with disabilities are just as complex and nuanced as anybody else, and we don’t only do saccharine children’s shows. With Chicago, we’re allowing some of the humor that comes out in our culture around dark things to be showcased on the stage.”
That's part of Phamaly's new push. “In the resurgence, we’ve tried to get back to the disability-affirming model the founders of Phamaly envisioned,” says Linton. “We have people with disabilities working in all aspects of the organization, and we’re keeping the message close to the work we’ve been doing. We’re not allowing shame into the mix.”
Guys and Dolls was Barrett’s first Denver production. Since then, he has performed in more than sixty shows for companies around town, including the deeply serious Master Harold and the Boys and Phamaly’s first-ever non-musical in 2007, Our Town, in which he starred as the Stage Manager. Last year he deployed his fine voice at the Aurora Fox in Songs for a New World, and two years before that played Porgy in Porgy and Bess at the same venue — a hugely ambitious project for a small company. Barrett, who always immerses himself deeply in his roles and tends to remain in character day and night for the duration of a run, remembers director donnie I. betts demonstrating the walk he wanted for Porgy. “I remember going, okay, this is different," he recalls. "In other words, shut down everything you’ve ever thought about this and find the kernel of who this guy is. It took a lot of physical and mental focus to do that walk — and everything came out of it.”
And still, beneath the multitude of roles — the sly lawyer, slinky lounge singer, seasoned con artist, philosophical Stage Manager — there’s the kindly man who ignored rudeness and stopped mid-performance to hand back a dropped purse. “My favorite thing to do is sing at nursing homes,” Barrett says. “I get to do the music I love, and they love it, too. I’m shining on them, and they’re shining back at me. It’s just wonderful.”
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“I think one of the things I love about Leonard is he allows himself to be eccentric as an actor," Linton says. "I see Billy Flynn as being very eccentric. He’s a showman — and Leonard worked for years in Atlantic City as a lounge singer. Leonard is professional, but also willing to take on incredible risks when he’s on stage, and it’s fun to see him bringing out the quirky side of himself.
“He has this very universal awareness of everything going on and an intense nuanced connection to other humans. Once he’s in the zone, he can react so authentically and also be in character. He is a true performer and a very generous human being," she continues. "It’s like a homecoming whenever he comes back to work with us.”
Getting Barrett back won't ever be a problem for Phamaly. “It transcends theater," Barrett says. "You’re with a group of amazing individuals who greet every day in a way most people have no concept of, with a positivity they have to have to make it from day to day. To be around that energy is spectacular. Phamaly’s home. It’s home. I will always return to it if they’ll have me.”
Chicago, presented by Phamaly Theatre Company August 1 through August 25, Studio Loft at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-365-0005, phamaly.org/chicago.