Michele Ragusa
From Buffalo to Broadway … and back

By Ron Ehmke

Michele Ragusa
Michele Ragusa.
Photo by Jim Bush.
Since leaving Buffalo in 1989, Michele Ragusa has toured with Theodore Bikel in Fiddler on the Roof, co-starred with Michael Moriarty in My Fair Lady, made a name for herself at regional theaters throughout the country, done some TV and film work, and captivated Broadway audiences in the smash hit Urine-town—to list just a few of her credits. She’s featured on the original cast album of the Tony-winning musical version of Titanic, appeared with the BPO on several occasions, and was a key player in Studio Arena’s crowd-pleasing 2003 production of Noises Off. She’s back at Studio this January as the star (and sole cast member) of Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy, Bad Dates. I sat down with Ragusa and her husband, actor Tom Richter, on a rainy afternoon late last summer, long before rehearsals for the show began. The two were in town to visit family and hit antique stores in search of finds for their house in New Jersey.

Q: What neighborhood did you grow up in?

MR: North Buffalo, around PS 81. I was actually born in Mount Vernon, New York. My father’s parents lived here, so we relocated when I was two, and I was basically raised here. I went to Holy Angels Academy, and then to Erie Community College—for Business. I had done shows in high school, but it wasn’t anything I was ever going to seriously think about doing. They had a notice up at the school to audition for Godspell. Jack Saviola was directing it; we did three or four shows together out at ECC North Campus, and he kept saying to me, “You’re really good, and you should think about [pursuing theater as a career],” but I kept saying, “no, no, no…” Finally he said, “Just go up to Niagara University, meet Brother Augustine, have a look around, and see what you think.” More to shut him up and get him off my back, I went up there and met Brother. I walked into that theater, and that was it; I knew I had to be there. I literally had five classes left [at ECC], and I left! [laughing] I went to Niagara, got my BFA, and taught [at Studio Arena] to earn some money before I moved to New York.

Q: How did you make the transition from teaching kids at Studio to performing there?

MR: David Frank was still working there, and I was doing the Young Company’s shows in the school system. The theater was about to do Men Should Weep, a Glaswegian drama, on the Mainstage, and they needed a ten-year-old and a twelve-year-old in the piece. David said, “There aren’t many lines. Do you have any kids you think could possibly handle an accent?” So we got some kids together from my classes. Before we had the work session with them, David said, “Just sit here and read through this, because I don’t even know what I’m going to want to do with them.” So we read the lines, then he worked with the kids, and he called me into his office and said, “I know this may sound completely crazy, but would you consider playing this ten-year-old? I know you’re going to New York; you would have your Equity Card if you want it…” I played the ten-year-old, and a thirty-year-old neighbor.

Q: How much input did you have in the new production?

MR:
It was terrific, because [Studio’s former Artistic Director Gavin Cameron-Webb] said, “Are there any directors you’d like to work with?” That’s something you’re never asked as an actor. Scott Schwartz had directed me in Me and My Girl, and a piece we did at a festival in New York. I love Scott! He’s very up-and-coming—he did Golda’s Balcony, and The Cherry Orchard with Matthew Broderick, and [Jonathan Larson’s pre-Rent musical] Tick, Tick … BOOM! in London. He’s so excited about the show, because Studio has this amazing reputation. I’ve worked a lot across the country, and Studio Arena is [the kind of place where], as an actor, you barely have to ask for anything, it’s right there. Almost before you say you need it, it’s sitting in front of you.

Q: You and your director—and your husband Tom, for that matter—have Broadway experience, and yet you’re all still eager to work in regional theater. Why?

MR: Obviously it varies from state to state and city to city, depending on what the funding is like—

Tom Richter: —But usually the facility you’re in for regional theater far surpasses Broadway. You get treated better, there’s a luxury of space, you’ve got your costume and set shop onsite, so if something changes you can tweak it right away. You can’t with a big show that’s running on Broadway. There’s much more creative freedom in a regional theater, because there’s less money at stake.

MR: [Speaking of funding,] it’s sad, when you look at schools, how the art, music, and drama programs get cut—what’s better than letting your children be creative and use their minds? Especially young children. I think the youngest I taught when I was here was five or six, and they were so game, so ready for anything. It was great to see them use their imaginations. They’re not just sitting playing video games or watching TV, they’re really using their minds to create anything they want.

Q: What can you tell us about the character you play in Bad Dates?

MR: She’s a single mother who goes on this series of very bad dates. She’s always trying to figure out what to wear—trying to be perfect, trying to entice whoever it is she’s meeting. There’s wonderful comedy—what she goes through as she’s searching for the right partner—but it’s also very poignant; there are moments of heartbreak.

Q: At first glance, some might assume Bad Dates is the theatrical equivalent of a “chick flick.” Is that a fair description?

MR:
It’s a term, but I have to say, there’s an innate curiosity about how the other sex works. I think this piece will almost be semi-voyeuristic, if you will. Men will be able to say, “Is that really what a woman goes through when she’s getting ready for a date? My god!”

Sometimes labeling something “for women”—you’re trying to target your audience, but I think that it cuts an enormous portion out of it. This isn’t The Vagina Monologues; men are not going to be uncomfortable by any stretch of the imagination. It’s the human experience; it’s what we all go through. Everybody’s single at some point, everybody’s got to date … I think anybody can relate to that, really, so it’s not just for women, by any means. Not at all!

Q: Does the fact that you’ve been married for several years affect the way you approach the character?

MR: Well, as I’ve said to my husband many times, I waited a long time for him. I really did! I joke that for the longest time, if a man had orange cones and police tape around him, I would date him. It’s like, “Ooohhhh! A project! Come to me! I’ll fix it all!” [laughing] I’ve had a few years of dating experience to bring to this piece …

I’m looking forward to making it as enjoyable and surprising [as I can]. I want to try to not let the audience see anything coming. I want them to love her and root for her, because when the stakes are that high, that’s what’s going to really hit home for people—and make it such a great ride for me! I’m going to love doing this every night, I can tell. It’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be great.

Bad Dates runs Jan. 8-29 at Studio Arena Theatre (710 Main St., 800-77-STAGE, or www.studioarena.org).

Ron Ehmke (rehmke@buffalospree.com) is Associate Editor of Buffalo Spree.


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