Even though she's in a new Broadway musical called "Titanic," a show biz career has proved to be no sinking ship for Michele Ragusa of Buffalo.
With a smile that could launch a thousand ships, and talent to match, Ragusa is sailing high in the musical that brings the Titanic's victims back to life. "Titanic" opens at the Lunt-
Fontanne Theatre next month, near the 85th anniversary of the spectacular shipwreck.
For Ragusa herself, the Broadway show wipes out her fears that acting might prove to be her own personal Titanic.
"I am very pleased to be one of a very small percentage of working actors in this business," says the Niagara University '87 fine arts graduate, now in rehearsal. "I have waited tables on occasion between jobs, but that's all part of the life. It's never that bad, because you know another job is right around the corner -- knock on wood!"
For a long time the gifted young performer denied her incredible pull toward the theater, "because I had heard how difficult it was to survive in that industry."
Raised in North Buffalo, Ragusa attended P.S. 81, and then went to Holy Angels Academy, "where I got my first taste of show biz. I was involved in musicals there for all four years."
Singing like an angel, but a down-to-earth girl, she signed up for business at Erie Community College -- then pulled a "Michael Bennett." Bennett, the Buffalo creator of "A Chorus Line," also tried to be sensible when he decided to study architecture at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School. He wound up ignoring his drafting to put on shows at Hutch Tech.
In that tradition, Ragusa-the-business-student also appeared in shows, and she realized "a dream that I had indeed buried -- the need to be a part of this wacky industry." She met Brother Augustine Towey at Niagara.
"As soon as I met Brother, and had a tour of the theater department, it all became clear to me. This is where I must be. So I packed my bags and signed my life over to the savings-and-loan. My time at Niagara University was the most unbelievable time of my life. I saw myself grow in so many directions, along with attaining a confidence that's absolutely necessary to survive."
After graduation she became part of the Young Company at Studio Arena Theatre. The petite 5-foot-3, 105-pound actress was then was cast in the role of a 10-year-old child.
"My first professional job!" she recalls. "I would now become a member of Actor's Equity. I packed a U-Haul and headed off to New York City.
"Brother Augustine proved an enormous help to me by introducing me to Beth Wicke, head of daytime casting for ABC. She took me under her wing and redid my resume and cover letter, as well as making some phone calls to agents. My first job was a European tour of 'West Side Story,' where I would be playing Maria. It was an incredible six months, and I was overseas when the wall came down in Berlin." Not to mention singing "I Feel Pretty" at the United Nations in Vienna.
Buffalo theater-goers may remember the singer from Artpark, where she has played such roles as Christine in "Phantom" and Alice in "Teddy & Alice." In the 1994 "Phantom" starring role, Ragusa was "stunning," commented News Contributing Reviewer Patricia Donovan. "Her soaring coloratura soprano and elegant stage presence meld beautifully with a fine acting talent." In reviewing "Teddy & Alice," about Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, for The News, Anthony Chase noted that Ragusa's "comic timing is impeccable, and she exudes abundant stage presence and charm."
Ragusa appeared with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1993.
"I can't even describe what it's like singing with all those pieces behind you!" says the vocalist, who has a range from low G to E, to over high C.
Despite the fact that she may be on her way to becoming the next Patti Lupone, Ragusa is still shy about revealing her age.
"I'm between 25 and 40 -- how's that?" she answers with a laugh. "In this business it's not good to tell your age. It's just how old you can play."
She's also proficient with dialects and gymnastics.
The brown-eyed brunet's special skills won her Broadway debut as Novice in "Cyrano -- the Musical" at the Neil Simon Theatre.
No novice any longer, as "Titanic" pulls into Broadway, Ragusa says, "I'm thrilled to be a part of history."
And it's a shocking history, as documented in the first draft by the original April front page of The Buffalo News, which headlined the "Century's Most Appalling Disaster" on a face-slapping chilly evening. More than 1,500 people met a watery death, including Western New Yorkers, and members of the wealthy Vanderbilt, Astor and Guggenheim families. From "Titanic" theater notes: "Rich and poor, young and old, they came from the four corners of the earth to board the modern wonder of the world. The jeweled and the jaded, the aesthetes and the athletes, the maids and the millionaires, the anonymous and the infamous, the down-at-heel and the upper crust, all of them destined for a landmark crossing. They traveled faster than man had ever traveled before, from one continent to another, surrounded by such opulence as to make Versailles blush, spurred by a tycoon determined to break the record for speed, captained by a trusted veteran of the high seas."
Even the emigrants in steerage enjoyed "for the first time in their lives, four full days of leisure. For those four days, life was carefree, the crossing perfectly smooth, the passengers increasingly eager for their arrival in New York," recounts Amy Jacobs, "Titanic" show representative. "Then came Sunday, April 14."
On that cold, crystal-clear night, minutes to midnight, the "stars reflected diamonds off the black Atlantic. People bundled overcoats over their evening clothes to enjoy the brisk slap of the suddenly frigid air sweeping the promenade deck," Jacobs relates. "Inside the first-class ballroom, the crystal chandeliers bathed dancers in a golden glow as the band played on, and in the club room, the men warmed to card games and cognac, surrounded by statues of the gods, swathed in the smoke of expensive cigars."
Then they felt the jolt. In part it's a story about how the "unswerving belief that God favored the rich, plunged that night to the bottom of the sea, aboard the largest moving object on earth," Jacobs points out.
In "A Chorus Line" tradition, Michele Ragusa says, there "are no real 'leads' in this piece -- we all play numerous people on the ship." She calls her director, Richard Jones, "a genius." He was voted Artist of the Year by the British Press.
"His vision is incredible," the actress enthuses. "You can't help but be swept away by his passion for this piece."