Little Theatre to present musical about the American experience

Greenwood Little Theatre’s upcoming production is the telling — or more so the singing — of the American experience.

“Ragtime: The Musical,” which opens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the W.M. Whittington Jr. Playhouse, presents the “story of three major groups of people at the dawn of the century in 1906,” said Will Perkins, the musical’s director.

Set in New York City, the musical’s three groups each depict a different facet of American life, encompassing various races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

There is the African American group, represented by the Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., and the community of Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. Finally, there are the upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a family residing in the posh, nearby town of New Rochelle.

The three groups’ lives “become intertwined in a way they couldn’t foresee happening and couldn’t prevent from happening,” Perkins said.

Interspersed within the arcs of the groups’ converging stories are the appearances of nonfictional figures of the time, such as magician Harry Houdini, financier J.P. Morgan and educator and prominent African American leader Booker T. Washington.

The musical itself is based on a 1975 award-winning novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow.

It wasn’t until December of 1996 when “Ragtime” debuted at the Toronto Center for the Performing Arts in Canada. Since then, the musical has been performed on Broadway in New York, on West End in London and in a number of regional productions.

The show was written by Terrence McNally, with music composed by Lynn Ahrens and lyrics written by Stephen Flaherty.

Perkins first became aware of “Ragtime” when he bought the musical’s soundtrack in eighth grade. Afterward, he bought the novel and has “been in love with the power of the story and the energy of the songs since,” he said.

In the 2000s, he saw a live production of the musical at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson.

Pre-production for the musical began in December with casting. “Face-to-face” rehearsal began in March.

“We’ve just been powering through since then,” Perkins said.

There are differences when it comes to producing a musical versus a play. For one, musicals rely on a bigger cast, the director said. There are more than 30 characters listed in the musical’s program.

“We rely on as many people who we can get, working around their personal schedules and what not,” Perkins said. “It’s a logistics issue.”

Regardless, the director said everyone was able to work together.

“It’s the genesis of what community theater is about,” Perkins said, adding that the cast for the musical has been one of the best casts with whom he has worked.

“We all share a vision and common message that we’re putting out. ... There are shows where you can just tell people are reading the script, and there are shows where people are passionate about it.”

Perkins hopes for a large turnout for “Ragtime,” saying that issues the production touches on are still very relevant, notwithstanding the fact it’s based on a 1970s book set in the early 1900s.

“The show deals with issues of class, it deals with issues of gender, it deals with issues of the African American community and the white community,” as well as poverty and affluence, Perkins said, explaining there will be some adult language and content, gunfire and strobe lights that may be unsuitable for some younger viewers.

Though the show is not a “nostalgic look” by any means, Perkins said the “issues of 1906 are still the issues of 2019.”

“Come see this beautiful, fun, at times comedic, at times deeply emotional musical that is being performed by very raw passion,” Perkins said.

Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday, June 8, and Sunday, June 9, at the playhouse.

Alicia Dallas