Buffalo native Michele Ragusa wraps up star turn in ‘Gypsy’
blog by Ben Kirst • July 20, 2013 @ 7:00am
If you aren’t familiar with Michele Ragusa, charge yourself three demerits for Failure to Recognize a Famous Buffalonian.
Ragusa, raised in North Buffalo and a graduate of both Holy Angels Academy and Niagara University, is a legitimate stage presence with six Broadway shows, a trio of national tours, a handful of network television appearances and a string of high-profile concerts to her credit—and tonight she completes a two-week run that adds another star turn to her resume.
Ragusa—who, in 2008, took over for Will & Grace star Megan Mullally as Elizabeth in the stage production of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and is featured on the original cast recording of Titanic—is currently starring in the legendary role of Mama Rose, the oft-described “ultimate show business mother,” in the Hangar Theater’s production of the award-winning musical Gypsy.
The show opened on July 4 and is slated to close tonight.
The Hangar Theater—so named because it is situated in a former municipal airport hangar in Ithaca, N.Y.—is considered one of the top regional theaters in the United States.
The July Styne and Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable tells the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, a renowned burlesque artist whose was notorious performances and steamy extracurricular activities kept her in the national headlines during the 1930s and 1940s. The production is based on her 1957 autobiography and has been revived on Broadway five times since its 1959 debut.
Ragusa stars as Mama Rose, the obsessively-driven mother to a pair of daughters, June and Louise, whom she pushes relentlessly into show business. Allegedly modeled after Shakespeare’s King Lear, Mama Rose (who was famously portrayed by Ethel Merman in the original Broadway production and Angela Lansbury in the London version) is essentially a tragic figure who fails to earn the respect and rewards she feels she are due when little Louise grows into the role of Gypsy—leading to her manic signature song at the end of the second act, “Rose’s Turn.”
“We didn’t tech that number until the morning of our first preview,” Ragusa said in a recent interview. “Once I got over the horror and fear of that, it left me remarkably able to just leave myself alone to experience it in the moment. There’s no one else on stage that you need to think about—just Rose and her journey. I also relished the name ‘Rose’s Turn’—many different ways to look at those words.”
The Hangar Theater production is directed by Ryan Mackenzie Lewis with choreography by Cody Smith and boasts a cast of Broadway veterans, according to Playbill Magazine:
In addition to Ragusa (Young Frankenstein, Urinetown, Titanic), the cast features David Studwell as Herbie, Wally Dunn (Spamalot, Gypsy) as Uncle Jocko, Ariella Serur as Louise, Alanna Smith as June, Martin Van Treuren (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jekyll & Hyde) as Pop, Rebecca Gibel (“Blue Bloods”) as Tessie Tura, Leenya Rideout (Company, War Horse) as Electra and Cathy Trien (Gypsy, The Great American Trailer Park Musical) as Mazeppa. Dunn and Trien were both part of the 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters.
Ragusa has earned solid grades for her work from downstate reviewers. James MacKillop of The Syracuse New Times wrote that “Michele Ragusa delivers a ‘Rose’s Turn’ that is a kaleidoscope of emotions: angst, regret and a deep unquenched longing. No performer in these parts has ever given it quite this plangent cry from the heart.”
Barbara Adams of The Ithaca Journal was more effusive in her praise:
Both as actress and singer, Ragusa is dynamite—with distinct personality and powerhouse vocals. Rose is human, flawed, not admirable but gutsy, relentlessly pushing everyone onward. She’s blind to any notion of talent, to her own lack of imagination (every update of the routines is pathetically similar), to her daughters’ maturing (she keeps them in ridiculous babyish costumes well into puberty).
Ragusa captures all this and makes Rose real, understandable, even sympathetic. It’s a complicated portrait of a woman who never doubts herself, who feels always in the right—manipulating, steamrolling, and lashing out at those in her way. She has moments of fondness for others, but then the selfishness kicks in. Her final song, ‘Rose’s Turn,’ which comes after the now-successful Gypsy has finally put her in her place, spills over with frustration and ferocity, passion and regret.
Ragusa has made regular working visits to Buffalo throughout the past decade, including 2003’s Noises Off and 2006’s Bad Dates (both at the now-defunct Studio Arena Theater) and several appearances with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, including staged performances of The Music Man, Funny Girl and this past April’s Kiss Me, Kate.
She will join the BPO again on July 25 at Artpark to celebrate the Lewiston institution’s 40th anniversary.
Image from micheleragusa.com.