Native Detroiter Roz Ryan razzle dazzles in ‘Chicago’

Chris Azzopardi
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit native Roz Ryan says she’s performed in an estimated 2,800 “Chicago” shows on Broadway alone, more than any other leading lady in the musical’s 19-year run.

But before Ryan, 64, slipped into the shoes of matron “Mama” Morton in dance king Bob Fosse’s Tony Award-winning musical romp, she was ours. A Detroit native with a dream and the $500 she won from local station WCHB’s talent show at age 16, Ryan was already making a name for herself locally, performing at now-defunct nightclubs like Ben’s High Chaparral and The 20 Grand, a posh and popular performance space for Motown luminaries.

Now, Ryan, who splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, is heading back to the place that, she says, was her ticket to Broadway.

“It made me a performer,” Ryan says, fondly, “because Detroit is where the music lived, and I grew up in the midst of the music. And it was such a blessing to be able to come up in Detroit at that time. So, I had no choice but to do what I did because I was right in the heart of the music — that’s a wonderful place to grow up.”

Ryan opened for a hodgepodge of acts in 1970s Detroit, including the Funkadelic, performing “whatever kind of music the (headliner) was singing,” which, she says, shaped her versatility as a singer. But that’s not all the city taught her. At 17, she learned how to be a lady. She says a Detroit-based exotic dancer “took all the girls under her wing and taught us elegance … and how to function in a bar with a whole bunch of men and a whole bunch of liquor.”

She goes on: “It was such a blessing to be able to come up in Detroit at that time and to have all of my mentors and teachers.”

Those same teachers would be proud to know that Ryan performed as Mama in Detroit just a few years ago, in 2011, at the Fisher Theater, where it will be presented once again Feb. 9-14. She recalls feeling “very proud” to stand on that stage. And she’d been on that very stage before, as a young girl auditioning for “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but never like this. Never a star.

She is now, of course.

Aside from roles in “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and, of course, “Chicago,” Ryan was a regular on ABC’s “Amen,” which ran 1986-1991 and also starred Sherman Hemsley of “The Jeffersons.”

But, for Ryan, her record-breaking role as Mama in “Chicago” is more than just a part she plays — it’s literally who she is. “Everybody calls me ‘Mama’ on and off stage ... and I will check a child in the street!” she says, laughing. “If I see a baby in the street doing something wrong, he’s gonna hear from me.”

And, in fact, one did. She recalls a young man whose “disgusting” music was blaring out of his boombox irking her into action while she rode a NYC subway.

“I got up and walked to him and stood over him,” Ryan says. “I said, ‘Sweetie, I need for you to turn that down for me, your sister, your mother and any other woman that you respect.’ ”

His response? “Yes, ma’am.”

“Chicago” choreographer David Bushman, who first met the actress while she was performing on Broadway as Effie in “Dreamgirls,” insists that Ryan has a commanding presence about her that’s all her own. “Roz is definitely not afraid to speak her mind, which is great,” he says. “She’s a very important character in the show, and she just gets it. She absolutely gets it.”

With its flashy musical numbers and the razzle-dazzle of its ’20s-era set, the same could be said about “Chicago” as a whole. The show’s revival launched in 1996 under the supervision of Ann Reinking, who was asked to recreate the choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse.”

Since then, slight tweaks have been made, according to Bushman, but they’re “story based — they’re not the choreography; it’s essentially the same movement that is heavily inspired by all the work that she had done with Bob Fosse on the original production.”

More than four decades later, “Chicago” has continued to remain timeless. But Bushman isn’t surprised. “What you’re seeing is a Vaudeville rendition of this story,” he says, “and it’s a style people don’t get tired of. People ask me all the time, ‘Aren’t you sick of the show?’ And honestly, I just don’t. Anyone who’s associated with the show will say the same thing. It’s not that it’s just become iconic in terms of the story and the style of the show. The discovery of this work is neverending.”

Bushman calls the musical’s plot the “language of the day,” and says that it is, perhaps, more relevant now than ever. Celebrities facing the criminal justice system like in “Chicago” — that’s real life. That’s O.J. Simpson and Lindsay Lohan, and our fascination with famous stars facing criminal charges, Bushman says, is very real.

“Fosse was such an innovator that the first time ‘Chicago’ came around,” he says, “the world might not have been as ready for it.”

Its enduring popularity, Ryan adds, is simply, “because it’s fabulous. I mean, first, we’ve got (dancers) showing all their goodies, and we have beautiful men and we have beautiful women and” — she laughs — “you got me!”

Almost 3,000 shows later, it’s still true. But for how long? Affirming that she’s got a lot more Mama in her, Ryan references Broadway icon and “dear friend” Carol Woods, who just retired from playing Mama at age 70.

No, Ryan isn’t even close to being done with “Chicago” yet, and that’s a promise: “I could do Mama as long as I can walk and sing a note.”

Chris Azzopardi is a Canton-based freelancer.

Chicago — The Musical

Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand, Detroit

Feb. 9-14

Tickets: $34-$89

(313) 872-1000

Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

May be inappropriate for children 12 and under. Children under 5 prohibited.

Name: Roz Ryan (born Rosalyn Bowen)

Age : 64

Notable shows : “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” and the 2006 revival of “The Pajama Game”

Record-breaking moment : Performing in more than 2,800 “Chicago” shows on Broadway

Fun fact : Ryan voiced Thalia, the Muse of Comedy in the Disney film, “Hercules” (1997)

School : Graduate, Mackenzie High School, 1969

Parents : Gertrude and Thomas Bowen