Friday, January 29, 2016

Hometown actress reprises her role as countess of the clink in “Chicago”

When Roz Ryan steps onto the Fisher Theatre stage in “Chicago” on Feb. 9, it will be a homecoming for the actress in more ways than one.
The Detroit native will be performing in her hometown, on the stage where she auditioned for her first Broadway role and in the musical for which she broke a record.
The 64-year-old grew up in Detroit and began performing in clubs such as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and The Roostertail at age 17.
“Music is in my blood,” she said.
Since then, she’s gone on to conquer Broadway, film, TV, cartoons and commercials.
“It’s challenging but a lot of fun,” Ryan said about switching among the different mediums.
Ryan last graced a Detroit stage in 2011  —  also in “Chicago” at the Fisher  —  and returns for its run Feb. 9 to 14 at the historic theater.
The venue holds a lot of memories for the veteran performer – it’s where she got her first big break.
“I auditioned for ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ in 1979 at the Fisher and I was on Broadway 10 days later,” she said.
Ryan holds a unique Broadway record, having played more performances as Matron “Mama” Morton in “Chicago” than any other leading actress in the show’s historic 18-year run.
If that weren’t enough, her career also includes other Broadway roles in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Dreamgirls” and “One Mo’ Time;” roles on TV shows such as “Amen,” “The Good News” and “The Rickey Smiley Show;” films such as “I Think I Love My Wife” and “The Invention of Lying;” and cartoon voiceovers in “Hercules,” “Adventure Time” and “Looney Tunes.”
She made her debut in “Chicago” in January 1999 and  also has starred as Matron “Mama” Morton in various national tours since 1997 and international runs of the show in Abu Dhabi and Portugal.
“I remember when I first started and the director came in and kept looking at all my earrings,” she said. “I asked if he wanted me to lose them, and he said, ‘No, it makes sense. Everybody comes in and she gets something from all of them.’”
The musical – set to a Kander and Ebb score with sizzling choreography by the legendary Bob Fosse – takes place in the scandalous times of 1920s Chicago.
Housewife and aspiring dancer Roxie Hart takes center stage in the musical as she maliciously murders her lover after he threatens to walk out on her.
In an age when criminals quickly turn into celebrities, Roxie dupes the public, the media, slick attorney Billy Flynn and rival cellmate Velma Kelly to turn her crime into a mass of sensational headlines.
Playing the cellblock matron comes naturally to the spirited songstress, who adds her own feisty touch to the character night after night.
“What I love about her is that she’s the person you love to hate,” she said. “She’s a hard hustler, but so lovable. Everything she does is for a purpose. You have to go through her to get money, food, a lawyer – and she hustles for it.”
While the part doesn’t change, a new audience is what gives the show life each night, according to Ryan.
“We don’t change that much, but a fresh audience responds differently from night to night,” she said. “Something that may not have been funny last night gets a different response the next night.
“It’s the little things we notice when we just kind of go out and do our thing.”
And having a top-notch cast makes the hard work look simple, she added.
“I love that whatever cast is there, I’ve probably worked with at least half of them in the last 18 years,” she said. “When we get a chance to come back together, that chemistry is awesome.
“Then there are the new people who bring something fresh and crisp to the show.”
Best known as the suave yet eccentric J. Peterman on the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld,” John O’Hurley returns as the cunning attorney Billy Flynn, a role he first took up on Broadway.
Working with O’Hurley will be yet another homecoming for Ryan, who’s graced the stage with him in “Chicago” many times before.
“He’s very sexy, just a big ol’ hunk,” she said. “And he and his family are very sweet.”
Audiences in Detroit can count on being entertained by the simple, sexy music and dance the show is known for, Ryan said, but with “a little extra spark.”
“We’re going back to somewhere we’ve been but it’s not the same cast,” she said. “They’re going to see a really hot show.”
While Ryan’s career has taken her around the world, she said it’s always a special thrill to come back home.
“I’m between California and New York all the time but I used to come back here more when my parents were alive,” she said. “Now my sisters get on a plane and come see me.
“I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends popping up in the audience and going to the clubs in the evenings.
“It’s a great gig,” she said. “It’s a great life.”
“Chicago” slinks its way onstage Feb. 9 to 14 at The Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets range from $34 to $79 and are available at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online at and, and at the Fisher Theater box office.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Wicked" continues to work its Ozian magic

Since landing on Broadway in 2003, “Wicked” has become something of a cultural phenomenon and it’s still working its Ozian magic.
The back story of the two witches of Oz packs plenty of memorable songs, dazzling sets and snappy choreography into its mix, but what’s below the surface is responsible for continuing to attract hordes of eager audiences.
At its simplest, “Wicked,” based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, tells the story of how the pretty, popular Glinda the Good Witch and the intelligent outcast Elphaba, who came to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West, met and eventually became friends during college.
The messages delivered throughout the show – of acceptance, equal rights and staying true to one’s beliefs – set “Wicked” apart from its contemporaries.
And the national tour currently crooning at the Detroit Opera House through Jan. 4 is one of the best — from the green gal and her perky blonde counterpart to each member of the pitch-perfect ensemble cast.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Arguably one of the strongest women’s roles written for the stage, the Emerald-hued Elphaba has become something of a heroine to girls of all ages who feel ostracized for being a little different.
University of Michigan alum Laurel Harris takes on the lead role with aplomb, tailoring the part to her own style while remaining true to the character’s feisty, independent spirit.
Her thoughtful phrasing and ability to not add more gusto to a song then it needs make her performance a stand out.
She knows when to belt and does it in all the right places, particularly in the showstopper “Defying Gravity,” when she’s flying high above the stage making the transformation to her powerful new role as the “wicked” one.
As Glinda, Carrie St. Louis is effortless.
Her beautiful, lilting soprano soars as high as the bubble she uses to travel across the stage, and she delivers just the right amount of perkiness (particularly in her standout song “Popular”) to provide some good laughs without being cringingly over the top.
The charming Winkie prince Fiyero is handled deftly by former O-town boy band member Ashley Parker Angel, whose dashing good looks fill the part to perfection – even if his pop-tinged voice lacks a little fullness when compared to the other main characters.
Another treat comes from John Davidson – former host of “That’s Incredible” and “The New Hollywood Squares” -- as The Wizard.
His good-natured, fatherly take on the role almost makes you forget his sinister agenda.
For Ozian diehards and newcomers alike, this current national tour is an Emerald delight.
"Wicked” flies high through Jan. 4 at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway.
 Tickets start at $49 and are on sale at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online at and and at the Detroit Opera House and Fisher Theater box offices.

Monday, April 21, 2014

On the dark side: ‘Sweeney Todd’ closes theater group’s season with macabre twist

Switching from the light-hearted tale of a Cockney flower girl becoming a lady to a demonic barber bent on death and destruction, the Southgate Community Players’ season-ending show has taken quite a twist.
Initially, the plan was to close the 2013-14 season with the bubbly Lerner and Loewe musical “My Fair Lady,” but a problem with securing the rights took the group in a totally different direction.
Cue a mad barber, his macabre baker accomplice and “the worst pies in London.”
The Southgate Community Players’ season will end with “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” taking the stage at 8 p.m. May 2, 3, 9 and 10 at Davidson Middle School, 15800 Trenton Road, in Southgate.

“We wanted to do another well-known show that people recognize and that was a challenge,” director Christopher Rollet said, “but it’s a far cry from ‘My Fair Lady.’”
The performances mark Sweeney Todd’s second time in SCP’s lineup — the first being in 1990.
“When we did it before, it went over pretty well — you just never know how people are going to react to it,” Rollet said. “But there are a lot of people who love it.”
Widely acknowledged as composer Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece, “Sweeney Todd” is set in London’s seedy side streets and depicts barber Sweeney Todd’s savage quest for justice and retribution after years of false imprisonment.
 When he learns that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the judge who transported him, he vows revenge on the judge and, later, other people, too. He teams up with piemaker Mrs. Lovett, and opens a barbershop in which he slits the throats of customers and has them baked into pies.

The play was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 1979 and won eight of them, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.
“We opened with ‘Les Miz’ and the music here is just as good,” Rollet said. “Musically, it’s so difficult. We concentrated all through March and the beginning of April just on the music.”
The music isn’t the only challenge in the show  — constructing the two-story set piece that serves as Todd’s barber shop and Lovett’s pie shop below has been a feat for a five-person construction team.
“One of our technical directors is an architect and he always has these plans  — he’s great at that,” Rollet said.
Headed by technical directors John Meiers and Jeff Klug, the team basically built a two-bedroom flat that serves as the two businesses and the London streets.
The second story features a trap door with a ramp through which Todd dispenses his dead customers to the pie shop below.
“We just positioned it where we wanted it the other night and it’s way bigger than we expected,” Rollet said. “There will have to be some adjustments.”
In addition to allowing space for the actors, the piece also has to fit under the proscenium arch at the back of the stage.
The group also is perfecting the blood-spattering technique for Sweeney Todd’s victims.
“We found the straight razors we used last time and we’re figuring out a way that when he cuts them, the audience can see the blood and it will look realistic without it spurting all over,” Rollet said.
If it sounds too gruesome, he assures that audience members will get some chuckles, too.
“It’s not going to be gory  — obviously there are some light moments in it that are purposely put in,” he said.
The cast  — a mix of performers new to the Southgate Community Players’ stage and experienced thespians  — plays the biggest part in making that mix of drama and dark comedy work.
Larry Hubbard does a complete turnaround from his season-opening role as the heroic Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” to become the barbaric barber Sweeney Todd.
“Larry’s a really nice guy and sometimes I have to say, ‘You’ve got to be a little bit meaner,” Rollet said with a laugh.

Leah Cooley, who returns to the Southgate stage after a few years’ hiatus, portrays his sinister sidekick, Mrs. Lovett.
“She’s got a great voice,” Rollet added. “Everybody fits their part really well.”
Rollet said Taylor Yaeger and Matthew Hatty  — new to SCP but not theater itself  — bring youthful energy to the roles of Johanna and Anthony.
Rob Douglas, who portrayed Javert in “Les Miserables,” takes on the role of Todd’s rival, the Italian barber Pirelli.
The cast also includes Daniel Harrison as Judge Turpin, Cindy Turgeon as the beggar woman, Gabe Hubbard as Tobias Ragg, Richard Wieckowski as Beadle, Rob Douglas as Pirelli and Patrick Reed as Jonas Fogg.
Ensemble members are Samantha Bartow, Noah Bias, Chris Gawel, Kathryn George, Rebecca Hermen, Patty Hubbard, Emily Hunt, Kelly Klug, Jema McCardell and Zach Morgan. Rounding out the ensemble are Stephen Phillips, Kristan Reest, Stephanie Schulte, Nolan Schultz, Mike Turgeon and Kenny Witz.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $13 for students and senior citizens. Call 1-734-282-4727 or visit to order.
Contact Downriver Life Editor Andrea Blum at 1-734-246-0860 or Follow her on Facebook and @AndreaBlum1 on Twitter.

Friday, April 4, 2014

'We will Rock You' fails to deliver its promise

   Everything about “We will Rock You,” the jukebox musical currently at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre set to more than 20 songs from iconic British rock band Queen, is over-the-top and bigger than life.
For a production built around the music of one of the most theatrical rock bands of all time, that should work — but it doesn’t.
   The story and script by Ben Elton is thinner than paper — it’s 300 years in the future and Earth, now known as iPlanet, is controlled by evil corporation GlobalSoft with a ban on individual identity, rock ‘n’ roll and musical instruments. Everyone listens to preprogrammed, computerized Muzak.
   Society’s only hope lies with a rebel band of Bohemians who wait for a hero to lead them in a battle for rock resurgence.
   In the meantime, they gather at their rebel base — Las Vegas’ rundown Hard Rock Café — grasping ancient artifacts of rock’s glory days.
   They’re up against sinister government figurehead Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith), who reports to the almighty Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold); however the two cut more comic figures than foreboding oppressors of all things rock.
   Outcasts cringingly named Galileo Figaro (Brian Justin Crum) — who is haunted by snippets of old rock and pop anthems (think “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?”)  — and Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis) find their place among the rebels and, with the help of Buddy Holly and the Crickets (Ryan Knowles) fight to restore the radical rock of ages past — even if they don’t fully understand what it was.

   The jukebox musical has enjoyed a successful 10-year run in London to adoration from audiences and scorn from some critics — and many of the production’s cheesy elements make it easy to see why.
   Visually, it’s bright and busy with a huge rectangular video screen serving as the backdrop for much of the future cyberspace world.
   But much of the production is bogged down by garish costumes, cringe-worthy dialogue and unremarkable choreography.
   Not to say that there aren’t a few nice moments. “No-One but You” — sung as a tribute to rock gods who died too young — provides one of the show’s few heartfelt scenes, and the two leads’ rendition of “Who Wants to Live Forever” is touching.
   Through it all, the one aspect that remains consistently stellar is Queen’s music — with more than 20 of the group’s tunes delivered by a talented cast, particularly Crum and Lewis, whose pipes can adequately handle the melodies, if not the heart, of Queen’s late lead singer Freddie Mercury.
   One can’t help but think that most Queen purists (myself included) would balk at the tacky packaging of the group’s tunes; however most of the audience seemed to sit back and enjoy it for what it was — a musical romp of a not-so-distant future set to futuristic songs like “Radio Ga Ga” and “Under Pressure” prophetically written more than 30 years ago.
 The arena rock anthems “We will Rock You” and “We are the Champions” deliver a high-energy conclusion to the overly long 2 1/2 hour show — with the rock saga “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a fitting encore — but one can’t help but wish that that clean focus on the music had been consistent throughout the show.
Galileo’s bottomless mic stand —a nod to the one famously used by Mercury — is a nice touch to the memory of a flamboyant performer whose diverse body of work isn’t paid fitting tribute through this schlocky show.
   Freddie deserves better.
“We Will Rock You” is on stage through April 13 at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.