I love Phamaly, but I'm frequently unenthusiastic about the troupe's choice of material. I skipped January's Barefoot in the Park, having long ago been exposed to all the Neil Simon any human being should have to endure in a lifetime. When I heard that the current offering is the Disney treaclefest Beauty and the Beast, with its damp cardboard sentimentality and mostly forgettable songs, I shuddered — but dutifully, I went. And there I was, ten minutes into the performance, in that state of tranced enjoyment that this company — made up entirely of disabled professional actors — almost always induces, and trying to figure out yet again how Phamaly does it.
Every year, the Denver Center Theatre Company makes its first-rate facilities available, and the tech is highly professional. Costume designer Linda Morken knows how to work around a wheelchair or make a bent back look straighter, and Donna Koplan Debreceni and her musicians provide vibrant sound.
But the real miracle is the company itself. Phamaly's leads are as good as — and often better than — anyone you'll see anywhere. Jenna Bainbridge is the sweetest Belle imaginable, with a clear, strong soprano and, paradoxically, given her fragile prettiness, a commanding on-stage presence. Leonard Barrett, who plays the Beast, doesn't have obvious physical problems, but several years ago, he told me how Phamaly had recruited him. Company members had heard him sing and asked if he had a disability. "I said, 'I've been diagnosed with MS,'" he remembered, "and they said, 'That's good enough.'" Barrett went on to star with other Denver-area companies, and he's been a boon to Phamaly ever since his first appearance with them as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. His Beast carries a sorrowful dignity, and his subtle, powerful singing makes "If I Can't Love Her" a heart-stopper. When he actually transforms and we see his face — after a longish smoke-and-music-filled interlude — it's magic, pure and simple.
These are only two of many terrific performances. Gaston may be a dope and a brute, but Stephen Hahn makes him so full of a wild, juicy, hang-the-consequences life force that you can see why the village maidens pine for him. Rolling around in her wheelchair, pissed when she can't find a ramp, Regan Linton is the liveliest, silliest Lefou I've seen. Then there are the enchanted objects who staff the Beast's castle, all played by fine and funny actors. Mark Dissette gives Cogsworth, the clock, a convincingly pompous English accent to contrast with Daniel Traylor's impish, Frenchified Lumiere; Molly Nash is adorable as Chip, the cup to Mrs. Potts, the teapot; Lyndsay Giraldi-Palmer makes a graceful, sexy Babette, the feather duster; and Jodi Hogle exudes cheerful dignity as the opera-loving wardrobe. Elsewhere, Lucy Roucis spooks as Monsieur D'Arque, and tall, intense Sean Francis McGee stands out in the group scenes.
Giraldi-Palmer, who suffers from a hearing problem, can do the splits. There are other performers on this stage who cannot walk or fully control their limbs. As I watched, I couldn't help thinking about the extraordinary way director Steve Wilson not only accommodates these challenges, but uses the actors' disabilities to add fascinating bits of business and layers of complexity. Kathleen Traylor, who plays Mrs. Potts, is wheelchair-bound. This obviously impedes breath, but the low, quiet pitch of her voice brings such tenderness to the words she speaks and sings that she becomes the essence of comfort and motherliness — which is just what a teapot should be. As for the big numbers, thanks to choreographers Debbie Stark and Cindy Bray, they're done with a spirit, precision and intelligence that transforms hackneyed songs into straightforward pleasure.
Of course, my response was intensified by the knowledge that these are disabled people. But it had nothing to do with pity, or the synthetic pathos that Disney doles out in dollops. What I felt isn't about struggle and grief, but what people can make out of struggle and grief: entertainment, rising at times to the level of art.
I don't want to sentimentalize. Disability and illness aren't uplifting; they're grim and hard. I remember Roucis telling me a couple of years ago about a terrifying procedure she'd undergone for Parkinson's, and I wondered how she'd endured it. I can imagine the gray, pre-dawn hours in which some of the cast members curse their limitations, the unfairness of what's happened to them. But then they get up, dress, find a way to get to rehearsal and eventually come together to express something close to inexpressible, something about creation, indomitability and what it means to be human.