Musical still relevant after all these years

A thought enters the mind more than once when watching “Ragtime: The Musical” that it might take a very dim turn. There are many hard moments in this lively, engaging show. 

And sometimes darkness does fall but not without the counterpoint of light and love that syncopates not only the play’s glad, sad and sometimes funny ragtime score, which carries the audience through a tapestry of complex stories set in the early 20th century.

“Ragtime,” which opens for a four-day run Thursday night at Greenwood Little Theatre’s W.M. Whittington Jr. Playhouse, has a cast of 36, a big number for GLT that includes some experienced actors and a good many on stage for the first time. This is exactly what community theater ought to be doing, mixing new with old, youth with their elders to produce first-rate shows while growing performers and supporters for the future.

Director Will Perkins said a few days ago that he told the cast, “This is not my show. This is your show. You have owned it and made it more beautiful than you have imagined it being in Greenwood, Mississippi.” The cast, along with music director Paul Brown on the piano, proved him right during a preview performance earlier this week.

There are many outstanding actors and singers in “Ragtime,” and among these is Taylor Buchanan, a Greenwood native who has sung and played in several bands and GLT productions. He has a big role this time as Tateh, a Latvian immigrant who arrives with his young daughter in New York City without much more than hope, ingenuity and a willingness to work to sustain himself and his child.

At one point, he becomes so disenchanted that he almost backs away from the America of his dreams but continues with a shred of optimism, now tempered by practicality that serves him well.

Another character with dreams is Coalhouse Porter Jr., aptly portrayed by Franklin Riley, also a Greenwood native, who has appeared in numerous GLT productions, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Dreamgirls.” This time he’s portraying a ragtime musician who is coasting on hope and love. He, along with his woman Sarah, played by the talented Brandice Brown, another Greenwood native with extensive theater experience, are prompted by pleasure in their son and Coalhouse’s Model T. Ford to sing about their family’s future in the exquisite “Wheels of a Dream.”

Perhaps Coalhouse and Sarah’s son will live to see his parents’ dreams come true. If so, the character Mother, who raises their son, will have been important in making that happen. She’s played by Amelia Kundel, originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who moved to Mississippi immediately after college and found herself at home. Kundel also has plenty of stage experience and a lovely voice. Her job is to reveal how a traditional upper class woman stands up for what is right, finds herself by doing so and uses her strength to form an armature for herself and others as they sculpt a new image of life from the changes the 20th century has brought.

The stories of these characters and those around them — including Booker T. Washington played by Marcus Cooper, Henry Ford played by Bobby VanDevender, Emma Goldman played by Nichole Henry, J.P. Morgan played by Eddie Amelung, and Harry Houdini played by Perkins, the director — are woven with the threads of change that seem timely a hundred years later at the beginning of the 21st century. There’s still the push-pull of movement that’s exciting, confusing, infuriating and invigorating. The introductory music to ‘Ragtime’ contains a lyric, “It was the music / Of something beginning. / An era exploding, / A century spinning.” Sound familiar?

Performances will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the playhouse, 707 Sycamore St. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students. For reservations, visit Tickets also will be available at the door.

Alicia Dallas