43 people did not have a good time tonight at Journey of a Bombshell: The Ina Ray Hutton Story last night. That’s because the Anacostia Arts Center Black Box theater seats 60 and was largely empty, but the 17 of us who did make it for the 7:30 pm show had a helluva good time. You shoulda been there with us.
One of the difficulties of the DC Fringe- well, any Fringe, really- is that some of the venues are so far off the beaten track. Sometimes it’s a crap shoot where a show will end up- it’s a great pity, in this case, that the Anacostia, with its snug little theater, wonderful gallery spaces and tiny micro boutiques, isn’t more centrally located to most of the Fringe. Even with Fringe shuttles, some people might think it isn’t worth the trek to schlep over for a single show. They’d be wrong.
Written by and performed by Melissa Ritz, the little-known story of bandleader Ina Ray Hutton makes for an unusual and absorbing history lesson. Hutton, long rumored to have been an African American woman ‘passing’ as white in the 1930s through the late 1960s, seems to have been a woman of strength as well as beauty. What is known for a verifiable fact is that Hutton was a triple threat entertainer- tapdancer, singer, and leader of a fourteen piece all-women’s jazz band- in an era when most women merely stood behind a mike, sounded pretty, and then sat down to the side of the big band with a shy curtsey and a bob of the head.
Ritz seems to have done her homework here, first as a writer and, most impressively, as a performer. A Madeline Kahn lookalike, Ritz is pretty enough to be called a bombshell herself but is skilled enough to portray Hutton, her mother, various agents, members of the band, an early (and hilarious) dance teacher, and even Hutton’s innumerable husbands. Solid direction and further script development from director Julie Kline helps to differentiate the characters in this one-woman piece, although there were a few times when characters segued into broad clichés of Talent Agent and Cute Little Girl. And I know this is a minor complaint, but California Valleyspeak most certainly did not exist in the 1930s. Please fix that, it drove me bonkers.
Journey of a Bombshell
Written and performed by Melissa Ritz
Directed by Julie Kline
Choreography: Melissa Ritz and Shelby Kauffman
Composer: Barry Best
Details and tickets
But that’s a small quibble, unimportant in the long run. At 75 minutes long, the piece could use some tightening- skipping over a couple of husbands and an agent or two comes to mind- but the core of the show is solid, the humor consistent and unexpected, and the musical numbers a delight. And did I mention that Ms Ritz is a pretty good tapdancer, too?
I found myself wondering what this show would look and sound like with a small band rather than the recorded big band accompaniment, which, yes, I know, is unavoidable given the financial confines of a small solo show. Better, I think, fresher of course, though where you’d fit everyone would be a mystery. Perhaps those 43 seats could be put to better use for the next show..?
Darn it, though, they’ll be filled up by then.*
*with an audience. Just in case there was any question. Go see this show: four stars.