The PHAMALy Way

Come look at the freaks.
Come look at the geeks.
Come look at God's mistakes...

So opens Side Show, a Tony Award-nominated musical based on the story of conjoined twins and vaudeville stars Daisy and Violet Hilton, whose fifteen minutes of enduring fame came in Tod Browning's 1932 cult-classic film Freaks. It's a strong but apt introduction, considering the subject matter--and one that takes on a whole new meaning when the cast of a new local production of the play rolls out on the floor for a rehearsal. This cast doesn't just walk on--it limps, lurches, rolls in wheelchairs, emotes in sign language and feels its way around, though the pre-rehearsal banter isn't much different from what you'd hear at any other theatrical endeavor.

There's wisecracking Gregg Vigil, who would gladly wheel his way in the pouring rain rather than miss a rehearsal while waiting interminably for an Access-a-Ride van. Mark Dissette used to be a stunt man until an accident left him filled with too many metal parts to work again; a broken neck landed Christopher Simmons in a wheelchair. Little Donna Gunnison, born with a congenital disorder, loves music more than anything--so much so that she's had new parts written right into scripts for her. Showgirl Lucy Roucis was a Rockette before Parkinson's disease slowed her down. And then there's R. Matthew Deans, who was nearly forced to chuck his theater career when he became legally blind.

Welcome to the PHAMALy, aka The Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League, one of Denver's best-kept little secrets and--as far as artistic director Don Bill can determine--the only company of exclusively disabled actors in the country currently staging full theatrical productions. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, PHAMALy is rising to a new level by staging Side Show this year; it's slightly more controversial than the gentler Broadway fodder of past productions. But company members voted nearly unanimously in favor of doing the show when the chance came up.

"It's almost as though it was written for PHAMALy," troupe veteran Kathleen Traylor says of Bill Russell's play. Traylor plays the role of strong-willed Daisy from a wheelchair. Troupe-mate Katrina Weber, even though she's eighteen years younger than Traylor and ambulatory, plays Daisy's twin, mostly by standing backside-to-shoulder. She echoes Traylor's enthusiasm for the work: "These are real issues. This is life. It's not just a fluff musical."

It's not a fluff cast, either. As Don Bill notes, conveying the airy delicacy of a Ziegfield Follies-style production number while sitting down isn't an easy task--but cast members manage to do it anyway, pirouetting gracefully as their motorized chairs whir along with the music. Bill says his goal is to make audiences forget about the cast's obvious disabilities.

PHAMALy was started ten years ago, when a group of alumni from the old Boettcher School for the disabled endeavored to revive the good times they had putting on shows during school years. That original group included Traylor, who says her grandfather used to joke that she learned to sing before she could speak. But she says people weren't open to the idea of a company of actors in wheelchairs. "We were literally out on the street--'You're disabled, and now you're going to dance and sing and act? You've got to be kidding!'" Traylor had nearly put aside her dreams of performing on stage at the urging of a well-meaning social worker who called them unrealistic. But the social worker was wrong: A grant got PHAMALy going, and its first show, Guys and Dolls, was well-received enough for the group--and perennial member Traylor--to continue putting on annual productions.

Nowadays there's more money, though an overwhelming variety of special needs stretches the resources thin. Production manager Michael McGoff says three-quarters of their current $150,000 budget goes directly into production costs, which provide everything from stipends and set accessibility to such items as Braille scripts or transportation costs for the actors. He'd like to see more funds diverted into training programs that would help company members polish their formidable and determined but raw talents. In the meantime, however, he notes that PHAMALy is at least adding polish to its image.

"This show is a step forward: They're really in their adolescence as a company," McGoff says. "After this, they can't go back and do The Boyfriend anymore; their taste can be questioned now. I hope they're ready for that." Whether they are depends on PHAMALy itself, a tight-knit group in which the sum of many disabled parts functions as a strong, fully possessed whole on stage. More important, they are like a family, for better or worse. Traylor says it best, winking from her wheelchair: "If I start walking, I'm still a PHAMALy member."

--Froyd

PHAMALy presents Side Show, 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., July 9-24, and 2 p.m. Sun., July 18 & 25; audio-described performances July 10 & 18; industry-night performance July 19; Space Theatre, Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, $20, 303-893-4100.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd

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