The Pacific Honored Artists Musicians and Entertainers, also known as PHAME, specialize in confounding expectations. So, creating a new musical in collaboration with an otherworldly folk singer is, perhaps, a natural evolution.

Founded in 1984, PHAME has provided opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities to pursue their passion in the arts. Over the years, group members have shared the stage with the likes of Portland-based bands Pink Martini and Storm Large, and have performed hit musicals including “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Grease.” After winning a Creative Heights grants from the Oregon Community Foundation, the group decided from something completely unique.

In "Up The Fall," Melissa Halstead plays the role of Tortoise, the stern father of the villainous Grey Sisters. She's been a member of PHAME for seven years, performing in "Grease" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."
"I kind of feel like PHAME is a second home," she says.

In “Up The Fall,” Melissa Halstead plays the role of Tortoise, the stern father of the villainous Grey Sisters. She’s been a member of PHAME for seven years, performing in “Grease” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” “I kind of feel like PHAME is a second home,” she says.

Reuben Unrau/OPB

In PHAME’s latest production, “Up The Fall,” executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin said the group took a “big risk,” when members commissioned an original, full-length musical by Debbie Lamedman, a veteran playwright who has written and edited eight books on acting.

The play follows a young woman who is whisked from everyday Portland into an alternate, mystical realm of talking animals and three evil sisters are trying to control the world. Diana, a young woman in Portland, embarks on a journey to stop them, traveling back and forth between real and fantasy settings. Many of the elements of the story were inspired by Japanese, Chinese and Native American mythology.

“It’s a wonderful story because it’s got that universal theme that audiences can relate to,” she said. “That friendship and loyalty and trust are some of the most important things that we have in life.”

For music, PHAME paired Lamedman with longtime Portland folk singer Laura Gibson. Though she’s recorded three studio albums, this will be her try at writing for a musical.

“I got to employ different parts of my creative self that I don’t often get to do,” said Gibson. “These songs called for a sense of humor and there’s more of a wink to the audience that I don’t often employ in my own songs.”

PHAME members hope the ambitious approach to be viewed as a one-of-a-kind inspiration story. Beaudoin said that in the 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, civil rights for adults with disabilities have progressed, but there is still a long way to go.

From left, PHAME members Kylee Atchley, Chrystal Figueroa, executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin and member Estin Kiger. This is the first production that PHAME didn't cast everyone who auditioned.
"You can't shield people with disabilities of rejection simply because of their disability," Beaudoin says. "They deserve the dignity of risk."

From left, PHAME members Kylee Atchley, Chrystal Figueroa, executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin and member Estin Kiger. This is the first production that PHAME didn’t cast everyone who auditioned. “You can’t shield people with disabilities of rejection simply because of their disability,” Beaudoin says. “They deserve the dignity of risk.”

Reuben Unrau/OPB

“The city of Portland has been so consumed by this question of equity — equity for communities of color, gender, and LGBTQ,” said Beaudoin. “As the city has had this conversation, I can tell you people who experience developmental disabilities are at the bottom of this conversation, if they’re in this conversation at all.”

Through productions like “Up The Fall,” Beaudoin hopes to add their voice to the conversation. While some members join PHAME to simply have fun and express themselves, many have serious aspirations to become professional actors.

“We have actors who can stand on any stage in Portland. We have individuals that can front a number of bands in Portland,” said Beaudoin. “It’s not a rocket science endeavor at the end of the day. The people that we serve in this program want the same access that anybody else has. They just need different supports and services to get them there.”

“Up The Fall” will debut at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre Aug. 22 to 29.