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BROADWAY 'TITANIC' STAR ON SHORE LEAVE

Before Kate Winslet there was Michele Ragusa.

The Broadway heroine of Tony Award-winning "Titanic" still crosses "the Atlantic eight times a week -- amazing!" exclaims Ms. Ragusa, who landed on deck with the stage version before the hit movie came out.

And her stunning performance helped win the show "Best Musical," among four other Tonys. Now on a short "shore leave," the Buffalo native will perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, for the "My Fair Lady" concert at 8 p.m. today and Saturday at Kleinhans Music Hall.

"The last time I was on the Kleinhans' stage was for my graduation from Holy Angels Academy" recalls the 1987 Niagara University fine arts graduate, who demurs on revealing her age.

"But this is the second time I've performed with the Buffalo Philharmonic. The first time was at Artpark. I can't even describe what it's like singing with all those pieces behind you." And she's performed the role of "My Fair Lady's" Eliza more than once, including opposite "Law and Order's" Michael Moriarty.

At a tiny 5-foot-3 105-pound, the actress has a titanic voice -- with a range from low G to E, to over high C. Yet she thought she once would take on a more practical career, signing up for business courses at Erie Community College.

That is until she met Brother Augustine Towey at Niagara, and toured his theater department. With some student-loan financing, she had "the most unbelievable time of my life" at Niagara. And it all paid off. She's been on the good ship "Titanic" since 1997.

Armed with the "confidence that's absolutely necessary to survive in this wacky industry," she headed for New York City with her U-Haul. Reviewers have praised her soaring voice, comic timing and stage charm.

Growing up in North Buffalo, Michele went to School 81, and then got her first taste of show biz at Holy Angels Academy. "I was involved in musicals there for all four years."

She's appeared at Studio Arena Theatre and her first "out-of-town" job was a six-month European tour of "West Side Story," playing Maria.

Buffalo theater-goers may remember the singer as Christine in "Phantom" and Alice in "Teddy & Alice," both at Artpark. Her talent won her a Broadway debut as Novice in "Cyrano -- the Musical" at the Neil Simon Theatre.

But it's "Titanic" Michele Ragusa says, which really swept her away. "It's kinda hard at times," she admits, of her demanding schedule. "But it's so worth it -- thrilling."

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