Review: Bay Street’s ‘Ragtime’ Is a Masterclass in Intimate Musical Theater

The company of "Ragtime": Sonnie Betts, Harrison Bryan, Kyrie Courter, Derrick Davis, Lora Lee Gayer, Will Hantz, Ryan M. Hunt, Victoria Huston-Elem, Taylor Jackson, Daniel Jenkins, Brianna Kaleen, Ian Lowe, Rachel Parker, Zachary Prince, Cecelia Ticktin, Clyde Voce, Cathryn Wake, and Davon Williams Lenny Stucker at Bay Street Theater
The company of “Ragtime”: Sonnie Betts, Harrison Bryan, Kyrie Courter, Derrick Davis, Lora Lee Gayer, Will Hantz, Ryan M. Hunt, Victoria Huston-Elem, Taylor Jackson, Daniel Jenkins, Brianna Kaleen, Ian Lowe, Rachel Parker, Zachary Prince, Cecelia Ticktin, Clyde Voce, Cathryn Wake and Davon Williams
Lenny Stucker, Courtesy Bay Street Theater

After the shock of seeing a less-than-full house for opening night of Bay Street’s July MainStage Season show, Anna in the Tropics, it was exciting to bear witness to not only a full house for their final MainStage 2022 show, Ragtime, but a LOUD house.

The audience cheered intensely after each song, shouted “Bravo!” at least twice throughout the show, and when the musical concluded, the actors could hardly assemble for their bow before the audience was on their feet in a record-fast standing ovation. Both the show and the audience were a sight to behold.

So why the explosive reception? Well, for starters, Ragtime — with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally — couldn’t be timelier. This production, directed by Will Pomerantz, highlighted a number of recent and ongoing hot-button topics, such as racism and xenophobia, police brutality and special treatment, false report “Karens” and more.

Its characters — though roughly half nameless and half fictional takes on historic figures — are nearly all fleshed out and see engaging, relatable development throughout the events of the show leading up to their individual endings. Some of the character relationships are written, directed and acted so beautifully, that you can feel the audience being enraptured in their mesmerizing dynamic.

The show’s romantic leads are the fateful Sarah (Kyrie Courter) and Coalhouse (Derrick Davis), whose brilliant onstage chemistry is outmatched only by their breathtaking vocal performances.

In terms of raw vocal strength, Courter and Davis are among the top three absolute powerhouses of this production. During Courter’s first solo song, “Your Daddy’s Son,” she delivers an emotional gut-punch of a performance, hitting one tear-filled note after another.

During the song’s handful of false outros, one could see the audience eagerly checking to hear if the coast was clear to burst into applause. Once she let go of that final note, the room exploded with cheers.

Courter and Davis — along with Daniel Jenkins (Father), Lora Lee Gayer (Mother) and Harrison Bryan (Younger Brother), and the company — received the first “Bravo!” of the show with their performance of “New Music,” expertly choreographed by Christopher and Lauren Grant. It was here when Davis’ powerful voice first set itself apart, and he would follow it up in Act 2 with “Make Them Hear You,” which received the night’s second “Bravo!”

Derrick Davis and Kyrie Courter in "Ragtime" at Bay Street Theater Lenny Stucker
Derrick Davis and Kyrie Courter in “Ragtime” at Bay Street TheaterLenny Stucker, Courtesy Bay Street Theater

As far as compelling character development goes, Mother and Father’s journeys are masterfully portrayed by Gayer and Jenkins. Starting the show as the product-of-the-times racist white family, the audience gets to follow as Mother and Father embark on their own paths to empathy and respect, in different ways and at drastically different paces.

Gayer’s Mother quickly shifts into her role as the heart and moral center of the show once she commits to fostering Sarah’s baby. Rocking the “baby” in nearly every scene of the show must’ve been exhausting — even spurring Father to crack a joke about it — but no one could tell by the way Gayer gracefully moved across the stage in Mother’s vintage dresses, belting like a world-class opera singer whenever the songbook demanded it.

Her big opera solo arrived near the end of Act 2 with “Back to Before,” which received the most thunderous applause of the act.

Father’s slower, more stubborn transition was portrayed excellently by Jenkins. His abrasive energy served to amplify the drama and tension of the play, while being nuanced enough to make for a believable moment of turning over a new leaf near the end of the play.

Younger Brother is that one person many people know who devotes all of their time and passion to a new person or hobby every month, but never really finds what will fulfill them. These types of characters can be grating if not executed properly, but Bryan struck the ideal balance of satirical silliness and heartfelt earnestness.

The purest, most endearing element of the play is easily the relationship between Jewish immigrant Tateh (Zachary Prince) and his daughter, simply known as the Little Girl (Sonnie Betts). The pair succeeded in getting the audience choked up on several occasions as Tateh’s unconditional love for his daughter manifested in a variety of ways, such as by singing “Gliding” to her. Tears were shed over Prince’s sincere, heartfelt performance.

One can’t forget about Will Hantz’s delightful performance as The Boy, Victoria Hustin-Elem’s enthralling take on Emma Goldman, Davon Williams’ commanding presence as Booker T. Washington, Ryan M. Hunt’s contribution as antagonistic heel Willie Conklin, or Cathryn Wake’s wide-eyed, hysterical portrayal of Evelyn Nesbit atop a hanging swing in “The Crime of the Century.”

While some speaking roles were woefully small, Clyde Voce shone brightly when given the chance as Matthew Henson and Baron Ashkenazy’s assistant; ditto for Cecelia Ticktin as Kathleen and Taylor Jackson as Harlem Woman. As for Rachel Parker, please someone get her more singing roles, because her short solo in “Till We Reach That Day” was a gift of pure, powerful gospel sung with the voice of an angel.

Director Will Pomerantz and lyricist Lynn Ahrens told Dan’s Papers last month that Ragtime may be at its best when scaled down with less Broadway spectacle distracting from the engaging characters and their stories. As usual, Bay Street Theater has created a rich storytelling experience that homes in on these intimate moments and complex characters but does so without totally removing the spectacle. It’s thrilling yet poignant — a masterclass in intimate musical theater.

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