I was first introduced to Melissa Ritz and "Bombshell" in 2014 by my friend Ethan Paulini who told me about this show his friend Melissa was doing about the life of Ina Ray Hutton. I was unfamiliar with Ina Ray Hutton at the time, but after some research, I found her life and career to be fascinating. As a bandleader, Ina Ray broke barriers by being the first female bandleader to conduct both an all-girl big band and several male big bands in the 1930s/40s. She was also the first woman to have her own TV show on KTLA, later to be picked up for national airing on NBC.
The production I saw last year at the United Solo Festival was terrific, from the story to Melissa's performance (click here for my previous interview and review). So, when Michael Alexander of Two Sheps That Pass told me this show was coming back and was going to be at the SoHo Playhouse, I had to talk to Melissa again to find out what's changed and how the show has grown. We had a great time catching up as you'll be able to tell from the interview below. I was also lucky enough to have the opportunity to go see this run of Bombshell and let me tell you, it's even better than last year! Melissa has taken Ina to new levels and the show flows even better than it did.
Bombshell of Rhythm: The Life and Secrets of Ina Ray Hutton will play at the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam Street) through August 30! Click here for tickets!
1. After a sold-out run in the 2014 United Solo Festival, in which you won the 2014 Best Emerging Actress award, you are returning to the stage with Bombshell, though re-titled Bombshell of Rhythm: The Life & Secrets of Ina Ray Hutton. What made you want to bring the show back to the stage and what made now the right time to do that? It’s too good a story to perform for such a short run! And after 4 years of working on it, I wanted more! Ha! I feel like this story has a bigger life in it than a festival run, and the fact that it sold out at United Solo four times fueled the fire inside of me. There’s been an exciting buzz around the show and it’s almost taken on a life of its own. Shortly after my United Solo run, I performed Bombshell at the East Meadow Public Library where I discovered that the activities director who booked me, had an aunt who played in the horn section of Ina’s band in the 30’s! I also took the show out to Hollywood where I met with a former Rockette who performed with Ina’s in the 40’s, and taught Ina’s sister how to tap dance. Connecting with these individuals from NY to LA has kept my motor runnin’, and given me the drive to find more life in sharing Ina’s story.
Now has always been why I’ve done my show. I’m trying to live in the now and do what I can to keep Ina’s story on the stage. The now has continued to move the show forward and so far, has brought me to the SoHo Playhouse...an opportunity that came out of doing my show in Las Vegas. More details about that below...keep reading!
2. Why did you decide to retitle the show Bombshell of Rhythm: The Life & Secrets of Ina Ray Hutton from it's original title Journey of a Bombshell: The Ina Ray Hutton Story? I’ve always gone back and forth between "Journey of a Bombshell" and "Bombshell of Rhythm," the latter being Ina’s nickname in the media. I initially decided to go with "Journey" because I felt like that’s the story I wanted to tell...a start-to-finish story of Ina’s life, but "Bombshell of Rhythm" is a more active. It lends itself to musicality in the title. The tag line of "The Life and Secrets of Ina Ray Hutton" tips the audience off that there’s mystery to the story...and that’s alluring. There’s something private happening in this woman’s successful public life. It’s an enticing selling point, don’t cha think?
3. If you could give people one reason as to why they should come see Bombshell of Rhythm: The Life & Secrets of Ina Ray Hutton, what would that reason be? For the history! The history of one woman’s struggle for respect and acceptance in the male-dominated world of jazz music in the 1930’s and 40’s, and her struggle to be taken seriously when she had her own TV show on NBC in the 1950’s. Equality for women in the work place has definitely come a long way, but it was a rough start at the beginning...especially for women musicians on brass instruments. Although Ina didn’t play a musical instrument, she went through the same heartaches that her all-girl band did for the 5 years they were together.
4. What made you want to mount this run of the show at the SoHo Playhouse? The Universe intervened on this one, and I love how it came to fruition! Earlier in the year, I took my show to the LA and Las Vegas Fringe Festivals. I like to meet with my audience after each show to thank them for coming, and at one of the Vegas shows, a woman came up to me with a business card and said, "My son runs the SoHo Playhouse in NYC and I think your show should go there next. I’ve contacted him and he’s expecting your call." And then she quietly left. When I returned to NYC, I made an appointment with her son, artistic director Darren Lee Cole. We talked about my show and at the end of the meeting he said something to the effect of, "Well, if Mom liked it, it’s good enough for me!" The timing couldn’t have been better and that’s how Bombshell came back to NYC. It’s also how I came to rework the title of my show...I’ve gotta give credit to Darren on helping me out with that. It just goes to show that you never know who’s in your audience, and what the impact of one show can have on the shelf life of a production. Of course I wanted to do my show in NYC again, I just didn’t know where it would have fit. Turns out that going to Las Vegas to do my show was a gamble that paid off!
5. I recently saw this production and thought it was even more fun than last year. I felt you have found more substance with Ina Ray Hutton than last time around. How do you feel the show has grown since last year's run? I’ve performed it about 20 times since you last saw the show. I’ve had time to really understand the characters off paper and I’ve had time to develop Ina’s relationships with the characters in her life. I’ve had time to physically connect to each character and respond to the energy of the audience, so I feel more connected.
6. You play every character in this show. What do you like best about jumping from role to role as opposed to playing one character throughout the entire show? I enjoy the acting challenge of turning-on-a-dime. I’ve allowed myself time to react as a one character to what’s been said by another character, even though it’s only me on stage. It’s just fun to create different dynamic levels within each character and push myself out of my comfort zone.
7. Now that you've performed this show several times around the country since last year's run, what is something new you've learned about Ina Ray Hutton and how you relate to her? I’ve had the opportunity to connect with her family members and that’s made me feel more connected to her life off stage, which I believe affects one’s behavior on stage. There was more darkness to Ina’s life than I knew about when I first performed the show. For example, I discovered that Ina had a drinking dependency later in life. I was saddened to hear that. I incorporated that into the show just recently by adding a small flask to my costume. Ina drinks from it when she’s pressured about her past. These moments were already written into the script, so it was easy to add in the physical behavior of drinking from the flask. I connected through this part of Ina’s life from the outside. I was a cocktail waitress in a major Las Vegas casino for a number of years. I saw the negative affects of drinking and some of the reasons people choose to drink...along with the masking techniques people use to hide this behavior.
I also feel more connected to Ina’s strength. I’ve been living in NYC for almost two years and to survive in this city—and in the entertainment business--you’ve gotta toughen up!
8. Julie Kline has directed all the runs of this show. How did you first come to work with her and what has been the best part about collaborating together? I am so grateful to Julie Kline. Julie and I have been working together for about 18 months on the development of the script and the promotion of the show. I first came to know Julie and her work from the United Solo Theater Festival. I was volunteering at the festival and had the luxury of watching as many solo shows as I wanted. Julie directed Erin Layton’s solo-show Magdalene, and I was completely captivated. I wanted that style of storytelling to happen with Ina’s story, so I basically stalked Julie on Facebook, (thank you social media!) and invited her out to breakfast to pitch my show to her. She loved Ina’s story as much as I did and we went from there. Julie helped me develop the script and I have to say that I’m happy that she was open to collaborating with me, because she respected Ina’s strength as much as I did, and was always aware of keeping that theme throughout the script. There have been so many wonderful parts of the collaboration process and if you’re asking me to mention the best part, I would have to say communication. She’s an excellent listener and she gives excellent feedback and notes. If a director/developer and an actor/writer can’t communicate, you’re doomed!
9. I feel Bombshell of Rhythm is a great show for everyone, but especially women! I have my reasons as to why I feel this show is particularly great for women, but why do you think Ina Ray Hutton's story would resonate more with women than men? I feel like women can identify with Ina’s desire of wanting her voice to be heard and valued...especially in the workplace. Ina struggled for equality throughout her career and I think this resonates with a lot of women. She worked hard for economic, social, and cultural equality, to name a few. She didn’t take "no" for an answer. Her drive and tenacity allowed her to have a career in entertainment.
10. If you could create your own signature drink, what would you call it, and what ingredients would you put in it? For hot summer days in NYC, I’d create the Bangin’ Bomb: Grapefruit sangria infused with mashed ginger over crushed ice with a light chili-sugar rim!
As an Army "brat," Melissa grew up all over the U.S. and in Germany. She joined the U.S. Air Force out of high school, where she analyzed body fluid in hospital laboratories in Texas, Ohio, Colorado, and Germany. She also worked at the Ataturk International Airport for the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. One of the highlights of her time in the military was the year she spent traveling the globe as a vocalist and dancer with "Tops in Blue," a division of Air Force Entertainment. This tour took her to over 20 countries and almost every state in the Union. After earning the rank of Staff Sergeant, she was honorably discharged and moved to Las Vegas, where she worked as a cocktail waitress at the South Point Casino. In the spring of 2009, she became a certified Bikram Yoga instructor, and taught in Las Vegas for 4 years. She also received a BA in Dance and MFA in Theatre Performance, both from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She relocated to NYC in 2013 to pursue her acting career, focusing on her one woman show. When she’s not sweatin’ it out in the hot room, you can find her tapping at Steps dance studio.