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by Michael Portantiere

So in Love With Michele Ragusa


    Michele Ragusa

    Over the past 30 years or more, Broadway revivals (and revisals) of classic musicals have been abundant. Still, there are only so many great roles to go around. Thus it happens that Michele Ragusa, one of the most talented and versatile performers on the scene, has not yet had a Broadway lead.

    This is not to say that she's a complete stranger to the Main Stem; Ragusa appeared in the ensembles of Cyrano: The Musical and Titanic, and as an understudy/replacement in Ragtime, A Class Act, and Urinetown. But her best work has been done beyond Broadway, as for example her hilarious turn in last year's Adrift in Macao at Primary Stages, for which she received both Drama League and Lucille Lortel Award nominations. Her regional theater and tour assignments have ranged from Maria in West Side Story to Adelaide in Guys and Dolls to Eliza in My Fair Lady.

    A few years back, Ragusa was a dream Amalia Balash in She Loves Me at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and now she's back at that theater for the plum role of Lilli/Kate in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate. I recently chatted with her about the part and the production.


    BROADWAYSTARS: How's it going, Michele?

    MICHELE RAGUSA: Really well. This is going to be one amazing production of Kiss Me, Kate. The cast, Patti Colombo's choreography -- it's such a pleasure to be involved with something of this caliber.

    STARS: Paper Mill has been having some major financial problems of late. One of the reasons it would be so awful to lose the theater is that it gives worthy performers a chance to play great roles in a place where people from the New York theater industry might actually get a chance to see them.

    MR: It hurts my heart to see Paper Mill struggling, because it's such a jewel. I'm crossing my fingers that everything's going to get back on track for them. They deserve it, because they're still putting quality shows out there. They're not skimping, especially not with this production. I don't see any corners being cut. They've actually built two gorgeous Shakespearean costumes for me, because the costumes from the tour didn't fit me. The dancers have top-of-the-line dance shoes; they're all LaDucas, and those are expensive! We also have a kick-ass orchestra. If you hadn't heard about the financial problems, I don't think you'd know anything was going on.

    STARS: Is Lilli/Kate a part you've coveted?

    MR: It's one of those roles that I always thought about when I was younger, but I felt I needed to grow into it because she needs to have some depth to her. As I've gotten older, I've started doing so much more character work, but I still have this soprano voice that a lot of people don't know I have because they've only seen me belting and being sassy. So it's been fun to take on this wild character who's got an Italian temperament, like myself, and put weight into the part while being able to do the soprano stuff on top.

    STARS: You were great in Adrift in Macao, but I don't recall you singing soprano in that.

    MR: No. The opium addict was a pure belter.

    STARS: Tell me about the rest of the Kiss Me, Kate cast.

    MR: The guy who's playing Fred/Petruchio, Mike McGowan, is fantastic. He's so much taller than me, so he really throws me around in the fight scenes. It's very, very funny. Amanda Watkins is delightful as Lois/Bianca, and Tim Alex is terrific as Bill/Lucentio.

    STARS: Are you doing the revised version of the show? Is "From This Moment On" in this production?

    MR: It's not, and you know what? I'm kind of glad about that. It didn't make any sense the way they did it in the revival. Our director, Jimmy Brennan -- who's a genius -- thought it made that scene fall apart. But yes, we are basically doing the revised version of the show. "Too Darn Hot" is such an exciting number. You are gonna fall out! I watched it yesterday, and it's unbelievable. It just builds and builds and builds.

    STARS: I'm really looking forward to seeing it. I'm coming on opening night.

    MR: [sarcastically] Great -- at the end of our two weeks without a day off. And it's Passover. Theater with no Jews in the audience; that ought to be interesting!


    [For more information, visit www.papermill.org]

    Published on Sunday, April 20, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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