Ragtime

Charleston Stage Company

Opening Fri. April 6 at 8 p.m.

Running April 11-14, 18-21, 25-28 at 8 p.m.

April 15, 22, 29 at 3 p.m.

$10-$35

The Dock Street Theatre, 133 Church St.

577-7183 or charlestonstage.com

“It’s close to the biggest thing we’ve ever done. It’s got a cast of over 40. With the crew and musicians it’s more like 50-something. This show has 200 costumes, and there’s tons of scenery, including a working Model-T Ford that drives onto the stage in one scene.”

Charleston Stage Company founder and producing director Julian Wiles can be forgiven for exulting a little in his company’s forthcoming production of the musical Ragtime, based on E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel, a bestselling historical fiction epic. Wiles’ company is turning 30 later this year — and it’s leaving home for an extended tour of the Charleston peninsula. He wants the going-away party to be one worth remembering.

“It’s the last show for us in the Dock Street for a while,” he says, “so we want to pull out the stops and use the theatre as best we can, go out with a bang.”

In fact Charleston Stage’s peninsular perambulations have nothing to do with its upcoming birthday. Wiles is vacating his company’s longtime home, albeit temporarily, while the local landmark undergoes a $6 million, two-year renovation that city officials say will finally make it as notable for its technical amenities and comfort as it is for its history.

That means, for one, that the ancient, uncushioned wooden pews that have tortured patrons’ backsides since time immemorial — which to a suffering gluteus maximus feels more like galvanized steel than actual wood — are about to numb their very last butts.

Following Ragtime‘s four-week run, Wiles and company will turn the building over, as they do each year, to Spoleto Festival USA. The difference is that this time, they expect to be gone for a lot longer than just the summer.

“The official plan is that the renovation will take two years. But,” he says, diplomatically, “we’re making plans to perform elsewhere for at least three years. Hopefully things will go smoothly and we’ll be back in there sooner than that.”

At this time last year, Charleston Stage thought it would be moving from Church Street to Charlotte Street come May 2007 — to the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church in Mazyck-Wraggborough, whose congregation had decided to make their own exodus to bigger digs in West Ashley. A contract for the sale of the building to Charleston Stage BFFs Charles and Celeste Patrick, owners of the American Theater and Fish Restaurant, was on the table, pen at the ready. Until Wraggborough residents rose up in a spasm of self-righteous indignation and let out a Mighty Whine. The Zoning Board of Appeals, thus entreatied, denied a refitting of the church for commercial use.

Cut forward to 2007. Charleston Stage now readies to occupy both the College of Charleston’s 800-seat Sottile Theatre on George Street and the cozy American on King, formerly ersatz home to The Have Nots!

Ragtime, Wiles says, is “a prelude” of the kinds of productions he expects to toss off regularly in the Sottile in the coming several years.

“The Sottile is a big, huge, Broadway kind of space. We plan to do three shows on this scale there each year. In the American, we’ll do more Off-Broadway style shows, not as tech-heavy, no huge casts. It’ll let us spread our wings, programming-wise, a little bit.”

The American series opens in October with Tick, Tick … Boom!, a musical about the travails Rent creator Jonathan Larson went through getting that hit written and produced. It’s followed by I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright’s Tony Award-winning play about a German transvestite who survived both the Nazi and Soviet regimes in East Germany. If you’re gonna spread your wings….

At the Sottile, Wiles has scheduled his own Gershwin at Folly, Disney’s massive Beauty and the Beast, and the classic Fiddler on the Roof.

“We’ve wanted to create two series for a long time,” Wiles acknowledges. “It’s something that most big regional theatres do, offering complementary shows that appeal to different audiences. We’ve tried that before, with shows like Omnium Gatherum and others. But it’s hard when you’re using a single stage for those different kinds of shows. Putting them in different venues helps clarify things for people. Mixing up in same space, it’s harder for people to grasp the difference.”

Before that, though, there’s Ragtime to contend with.

Wiles’ enthusiasm for the source material is plain: “Doctorow’s goal in writing his novel was to re-create an entire era in American history, an era when huge advances in industry were happening, there were all these inventions, new forms of popular entertainment like Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit, who was like the Anna Nicole Smith of 1906. Twenty million immigrants were pouring through Ellis Island, and this great new music called ‘ragtime’ is exploding on the scene. The formation of modern America came out of that era,” Wiles observes. “For his book, Doctorow took real historical characters and incorporated them into a novel. The central story is all made up, but lots of real people are in there.”

With the musical adaptation, playwright Terrence McNalley and lyricists Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have done their best to put the whole thing on stage.

“It’s very cinematic,” says Wiles, “with dozens of locations and sets that change very quickly.”

As with the book, the musical’s story follows three main protagonists. “The first is a ragtime piano player who’s dealing with a lot of the prejudices of the period. Another is a Jewish immigrant who’s just arrived in America, he becomes a movie mogul by the end of the show, much like Hollywood’s Samuel Goldwyn did in real life. Then there’s a mother in an upper-class family who’s yearning to break free and away, choking under not being able to vote, to have her say. So she’s striving for a new kind of personal freedom. The play is, in a way, all about freedom,” Wiles says, “but not in a ‘rah, rah’ way. It’s all woven together into this amazing tapestry.”

Wiles has no problem cheerleading for the freedom his own company will be enjoying in the coming few years. There’s a big strategic plan in the works, he explains, and lots of ideas of the table — the upshot of them all leading to the establishment of Charleston Stage as a major regional theatre company in the Southeast.

“Part of our idea is to use this two or three year period not just to tread water but to build a foundation for the next level of what Charleston Stage will become. But they’ll also be years of discovery for us. Discovering what audiences want to support, if they’ll help us to build something that will serve this community for many years to come.”