Catching Up With Milford's Man Of The Stage

December 6, 2011


by R. Scott Reedy
Milford Daily News

Milford native Rob Ruggiero was back home last month to celebrate his 50th birthday with his parents, Hank and Jean, and other family and friends, so the much-in-demand stage director will likely be forgiven if his brief visit this week is all about business.

His production of Matthew Lombardo's play "High" opened its national tour at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston on Tuesday, December 6.

"I'm coming to town to put the show in and maybe stay for the first performance or two, and then I'm back on a plane to St. Louis," Ruggiero said last week over the phone from New York, where he was walking to a design meeting for the production of "Sunday in the Park with George" that he will soon be directing at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Ruggiero, a 1979 graduate of Milford High School, makes his home in Connecticut. He is senior artistic associate at TheaterWorks in Hartford, his latest stop in a long career with the dramatic arts.

He helped found New Directions Theatre Company in Milford in the 1980s, then worked at renowned regional theaters including Barrington Stage Company, Arena Stage, The Guthrie Theatre, Hartford Stage and Long Wharf Theatre. At Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, Ruggiero has directed the musicals "Camelot," "Annie Get Your Gun" and this summer's much-talked-about "Showboat."

Ruggiero has a bachelor's degree from Stonehill College, a master's in fine arts directing from Rutgers and an honorary doctorate from Stonehill, given to him earlier this year.

While many directors specialize in either plays or musicals, Ruggiero has had considerable success with both.

"I got my start directing musicals, and I love doing them, but I'm also proud to be among a small group of directors who do both musicals and plays," he said. "I'm a storyteller, so it is always the story that gets me, whether it is being told in a musical or a play."

In 2010, Ruggiero made his Broadway debut directing "Looped," another Matthew Lombardo play. Lombardo and Ruggiero reunited earlier this year for the New York production of "High," bringing actress Kathleen Turner back to Broadway to play a no-nonsense nun who counsels a street-hardened young drug user.

"This play is not driven by any religious agenda, but it makes a very strong connection between faith and recovery," Ruggiero said. "It does not idealize in any way - it just represents very clearly how strong the conflict between faith and addiction can be, and the belief that people have in their ability to change.

"Matthew Lombardo has his own history of crystal meth addiction, so he understands his subject matter, and his writing about it is beautifully simple and not masked by any kind of theatricality. Young audiences really connect to the character of the crystal meth user, who is a very damaged figure. His struggles bring a certain kind of gift to the nun and the priest in the piece. What is revealed has more to do with them than the young man."

The play closed on Broadway in April after a brief run despite praise from New York critics for the main characters. Ruggiero cited "a very crowded spring season" and not getting "the marketing we needed."

Lombardo has been working on the play since, though, and the months between the performance finishing in New York and the tour opening in Boston has been a good time "to polish the show," Ruggiero said.

"The production is now richer and more evocative," he said.

And with two Broadway shows to his credit now, Ruggiero's schedule is more full than ever. His upcoming projects include a return to Goodspeed next summer, where he will direct Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical "Carousel" and and will likely see familiar faces in the audience.

"This summer, my parents rented a 65-person bus and filled it with family and friends to come to see 'Showboat' and me at Goodspeed. I loved having them all at the show and was very happy to introduce everyone to the cast," he said. "I think they may be planning to do something similar next summer for 'Carousel,' and they probably won't like me talking about it either, because it might mean having to get a second bus."

"High" will be at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston, from Dec. 6 to 11. For tickets and information, visit the box office, call 617-824-8000 or check out aestages.org.

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