Heard of Ira Aldridge? It matters not. “Bright Swords” exhumes the 19th century black actor and brings him vividly back to life, telling the story of how he took a fellow thespian’s advice when he was 17 and went to England, where he would not face racial prejudice. It’s well-acted by Ryan Vincent Anderson, who shifts credibly between Aldridge and a variety of supporting characters, making each unique; Jeffrey Wienckowski’s direction is first-rate, highly attentive and never arbitrary. If there’s a flaw it’s in Rick Creese’s script. This solo show is heavy on exposition, though some of it is by necessity, dealing as it does with a largely forgotten figure; the text is solid for the most part but ventures into the mundane at times.

Want to see a terrific show about a woman way ahead of her time, performed by an actress whose skills are as stellar as her energy level is high? Catch “Journey of a Bombshell: The Ina Ray Hutton Story,” Melissa Ritz’s one-woman show about the undeservedly obscure big band era luminary and TV pioneer. The exposition is kept to a minimum in the well-honed script; Ritz’s acting chops are equally sharp, crisply characterizing a variety of supporting characters, notably Ina’s mother and music publisher Irving Mills, whose genius idea it was to have Ina Ray front a band. Julie Kline’s attentive direction and Tony Coppola & Shelby Kaufman’s choreography add immeasurably to Ritz’s snappy stage presence.

It takes brass to write, produce and act in a one-woman show about a famous entertainer such as “Ethel Merman.” Unfortunately, Gaby Rey hasn’t quite got the brass or the sass to pull off this impersonation of the musical comedy legend. She has a pleasant singing voice which she wisely amplifies with a face mic, and she can certainly hold a note, but she lacks the lung power and the pizzazz of La Merman. Worse, the script is monotonous and heavily expository; Ethel’s outrage over Rosalind Russell being cast in the movie version of “Gypsy” (which she originated on Broadway to huge success) fuels the show’s best moment, but it doesn’t last long before returning to the mundane. The singular costume looks good on Rey but is all wrong for the show; the lack of a director credit on the program is telling.

Author: Jordan R. Young

Jordan R. Young is a journalist, show business historian, playwright and theatre critic. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Magazine, Westways, AAA Tour Books, and The People’s Almanac.