Make way for mama

Chicago’s Carol Woods

Carol Woods plays Matron Mama Morton in <i>Chicago</i>

Carol Woods plays Matron Mama Morton in Chicago

She may be giving ’em the “old razzle-dazzle” as Matron Mama Morton in the Tony Award-winning Chicago, which appears this weekend at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts. But before Carol Woods became a nationally recognized Broadway performer, she was earning a measly $70 a week.

Unlike her character, the prison matron whose “when you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you” philosophy leaves little room for compassion, Woods always aspired to care for others. That’s why, after marrying at just 17 in the early ‘60s, she became a nurse in Queens, N.Y., happily making $70 a week.

That’s how things would have remained, but after her divorce in the mid-1970s, a friend who’d organized a dance asked Woods to sing.

“I had taken a date, William Spear, to the dance, and he commented on my ‘fabulous voice.’ He kept telling me about how he had friends who could put me in show business,” Woods recalls. “I just wasn’t interested.”

Spear badgered her to audition at a place called Frank’s Steakhouse, and to get him off her back, she went. She was hired on the spot.

“I only knew three songs—'Stormy Monday Blues,’ ‘Summertime’ and ‘Funny,'” she says with a laugh. “I just kept singing them differently for about three weeks until I could learn some more material!”

Spear also convinced her to take the stage during amateur night at the Apollo. The notoriously cruel crowd was kind to Woods—she took home second prize, which was $25. Although she was asked by Tommy Tune to return the following week, she cut her losses and swore she’d never return. She was content to stick with her nightclub gig until 1979, when Weldon Irvine asked her to perform in his blockbuster musical Young, Gifted and Broke. Woods was now officially a professional singer and an actress.

“Who would have thought!” she says. “I just figured I’d be a nurse for the rest of my life.”

Since those meager beginnings, Woods’ Broadway credits include One Mo’ Time, Follies, Smokey Joe’s Café, Stepping Out, The Goodbye Girl, The Crucible, and of course, Chicago, which she has now done for six years.

Chicago is a tale of chorus girls, hot jazz and cold-blooded killers set in the 1920s. This touring production features the classic music by Kander and Ebb, direction by Walter Bobbie and choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse. Woods will appear alongside Gregory Harrison—you may remember him as “Gonzo” from Trapper John, M.D.)—who plays Billy Flynn, Michelle Dijon as Roxie Hart, Brenda Braxton as Velma and Ron Orbach as Amos.

Woods says she’s had a ball playing Mama Morton. “Mama’s a business woman,” says Woods. “She doesn’t pull any punches. She has what you need, and she’s got your number, so don’t mess with her. She’s a lot of fun to play because she’s so ballsy.”

Woods, while “ballsy” in her own right, is a lot more generous. As the self-proclaimed gourmet chef of the production—and grandmother to nine grandchildren—Woods usually cooks for the cast. At Thanksgiving, she fed 60 people five turkeys, four hams and a five-tiered coconut pineapple cake. This traveling cast, she says, deserves it.

“Traveling from city to city each week is grueling,” she says. “But these people do it and make it look easy. That’s what you’ll get when you see a show of this caliber. … Be assured, you’ll be totally satisfied.”