Michele Ragusa shines in She Loves Me at Paper Mill and Keith Nobbs breaks hearts in the Keen Company production of The Hasty Heart.
Though the beautiful Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joe Masteroff show is beloved of musical theater buffs, Michele wasn't familiar with She Loves Me until she was cast in it. "I knew a couple of the songs," she tells me, "and that was it. About 10 years ago, I was working with a voice coach who showed me 'Will He Like Me?' and the end of 'Vanilla Ice Cream' -- just the last 16 bars."
Those who've heard her golden soprano tones in this or other shows may be surprised to learn that Michele originally was brought in to audition for the role of Ilona Ritter: "Alison Franck, the casting director at Paper Mill, knows me as a funny character woman. My agent called me and said, 'We have an audition for you for Ilona.' So I showed up, belted, did the scene, got lots of laughs, and then I left. Alison came after me and asked, 'Do you happen to have any soprano with you?' So I went back in and sang something with high D in it. I got a callback for Amalia, and then I got the part. [Director] Jimmy Brennan told me later, 'This is probably the first time in Paper Mill history that a lead has been hired without having worked with anyone behind the table.' He also said that, in all his years, he doesn't think he's ever met a soprano who could be so funny. I guess I'm an anomaly!" As it turned out, the part of Ilona went to Nancy Anderson, whom Michele replaced during the brief Broadway run of A Class Act. "Our paths cross quite often," says Michele. "Somebody came up to us at the opening night party and said, 'You two sing so well together; you should do Side Show!"And how is she dealing with singing the demanding role of Amalia on a full performance schedule? "I really try to rest my voice as much as possible -- steaming and tea and the whole, crazy hypochondriac thing. Of course, everyone I know wants to come to the show on a Sunday night, at the end of an eight show week. We do one on Wednesday night, two on Thursday, one on Friday, two on Saturday, and two on Sunday. My mom told me that she and three of our friends were going to drive up from Buffalo on a Sunday to see the show. I told her, 'You're going to hear the shreds of my voice!' "
Michele grew up in Buffalo, got her B.F.A. from Niagara University, and then moved to NYC. "West Side Story was the first job I booked after I got to New York," she tells me "It was a European tour. We were over there when the Berlin wall came down; I got some pieces of it. I've actually done West Side Story three times; I also did it in Vienna and at a theater in upstate New York." Has she ever studied opera? "No," she replies. "It's hard if you don't speak Italian. With a name like Ragusa, I really should learn Italian. It's embarrassing! I was really bummed out when those La Bohème auditions came around; I didn't have an aria prepared, so I passed.
"I don't have anything lined up after She Loves Me," Michele says when I ask about her future plans. "I wish I did. My agent and I are trying to get a bunch of casting directors out to Paper Mill; there are a few in New York who either don't know me or don't quite get me. I'm having a great time with She Loves Me because I've tried to make Amalia as quirky as possible. There's nothing funnier than watching someone who's slightly uptight start to crack. George Dvorsky [who plays Georg] and I keep laughing because we've gotten some back-handed compliments in the reviews. The critics have written things like, 'So many times, when you see a production of She Loves Me, they miscast these young, beautiful people in the leading roles -- but not Paper Mill!' And, after the show the other night, somebody said to me, 'You know, you're actually quite attractive in person.' "
******In a press release for the Keen Company production of John Patrick's 1945 play The Hasty Heart, Keith Nobbs -- who plays the pivotal role of Lachlen in the show -- is extolled by Carl Forsman, the company's artistic director, as "one of the most exciting young actors of his generation." Such statements often need to be taken with a grain of salt, but anyone who's seen Keith in action knows that there is no exaggeration involved in Forsman's praise.
Keith describes The Hasty Heart as "a beautiful play. It takes place in an Allied Forces hospital in Asia in the mid-'40s, during the war. All these people from all these different countries -- Australia, New Zealand, England -- are in this hospital. I play a Scottish soldier who comes in; the colonel tells the nurse and the other guys on the ward, 'I'm bringing in this man who's got about six weeks to live, but I've elected not to tell him that. I'd be appreciative if you could do whatever you can to make friends with him.' Then my character comes in, and he is just a jerk. He doesn't trust anyone; he has a wall up and he basically lives life on an island. The play is about issues like trust and fear and letting yourself be loved. The playwright looks us in the eye and doesn't flinch. That's the whole idea of Keen: to tell simple, honest stories without pulling strings or making you feel like you're being manipulated. And that's what the plays of the '40s and '50s did. You can understand why a lot of today's playwrights don't write like that, because it's terrifying to be that honest. It's amazing to think that we're now at a point where sincerity is reactionary! But when a play is written with honest emotion, it makes the actor's job a cakewalk.
"As our director, Jonathan Silverstein, was saying, it's interesting to do this play now because it's about the nobility of being a soldier. In a way, World War II was still a time of innocence; there was a sense of a community fighting something together. But now, it's like, 'Enh, we're going to war.' There isn't that nobility of purpose." The Hasty Heart was made into a film in 1949 with Ronald Reagan co-starring, but not in the role of Lachlen. "He played the American, the Yank," Keith tells me, though he has never actually seen the movie. "Chris Hutchison plays that part in our show, and he's great."
Over the past several years, Keith has amassed an impressive body of work in New York productions of shows as varied as Stupid Kids, Fuddy Meers, Four, Free to Be...You and Me, Dublin Carol, Bye Bye Birdie, and The Triple Happiness, so it's rather amazing to hear that he hasn't yet turned 25. He's proud of the fact that he's gone back to college: "I'm at NYU, in the Gallatin School. I did a year at Columbia when I was 18-19, but I left when I got Stupid Kids. Tuition at NYU is insane now -- 35 grand a year. It's like, hello! You count the kids in your classes and you think, 'That's $35,000 plus $35,000 plus $35,000...!' NYU is the second-largest property holder in New York. Do you know what the largest is? The Catholic Church. Isn't that nuts? But I love Gallatin 'cause you can just kind of incorporate whatever you want to do and make your own program."
Despite his youth, Keith has traditional values (you'll pardon the expression) when it comes to acting. He expresses dismay at such trends as "reality" TV and the digital simulation of actors in films ("For the love of God, please let it stop!"), and he's firmly committed to live theater. "When I did Dublin Carol for the Atlantic Theater Company," he says, "I would just get lost in Jim Norton's performance. I would think, 'This is the best performance I've ever seen, and I'm onstage while it's going on!' If you're lucky, you can find a trajectory of parts that are kind of analogous to what you're dealing with in your life and use them as a form of exploration. I mean, Jim has been doing this forever. That's how I'd like to be when I'm 60 or 70 -- still up there doing parts that are interesting."