NY Theatre Guide Review: Heroic, Big-Hearted and Finely-Detailed

Posted By: Jacquelyn Claireon: August 23, 2016

“Held” is a magnificent musical fantasy from Kelly Maxwell (Book & Lyrics) and Meghan Rose (Music), which takes place in another world–one also beset with unrequited love and impossible love triangles.

. . .heroic, big-hearted, and finely detailed. . .

When we meet our trio of the lost and lovelorn, they are trapped in a magical cell by the “blood wizard” and are unable to escape. Here in this confined space they will have to confront and dissect their relationships, which have been formed since early childhood. Korin (Hannah Ripp-Dieter) is from the dreamer clan, able to allow you to feel every dream viscerally. Her talents allow abundance and joy to flourish as long as she is putting darker emotions away in a dark, cold room. Mera (Katie Bakalars) is from the warrior clan, and her explosive temperament suits her passion for the military. Bardo (Alex Van Handel) is the baker, a nurturer who wants to bring peace and connection between the three.

Bardo Loves Korin, who loves Mera, who loves Bardo. It’s a kind of purgatory for all three, a sort of Sartre-esque “No Exit” until you can confront your own truth and speak it to your loved ones. With any great magical realism story, the clever metaphors are present to provide insight into our 21st-century earthbound lives.

There is an urgency in the story as the world outside the “prison” is dying, and they are helpless to affect any change. The only way to exit is if Korin is killed, and that is not a solution any of them are willing to contemplate. Maxwell has crafted a layered play which explores the dynamic of longtime friendships that don’t know how to evolve with the next stages of their lives. It gets right to the heart of the situation and presses all of our emotional buttons.

The music transports you to this other land on a score of beautiful harmonies and sad refrains that seem to make you miss people that you have never met. Meghan Rose is at the helm of the stage band, seated at the piano, with Jake Ripp-Dieter on bass and Kristine Kruta on cello, creating this soundscape of soaring ballads and moving trios.

All three singer/actors are triple threat performers with gorgeous voices and have created great characters. Handel as the gentle baker is our ardent and persevering good guy, but with a presence that anchors the heightened emotions of the two women on the war path. He is an extraordinary actor able to portray complex emotions, laying himself open and vulnerable–such a great trait for a young performer.

Bakalars is a mighty force on stage–big voice, powerful physicality, and exceptional focus. She was equal parts erupting, rage-monger and sensitive, love-stricken lover.

Ripp-Dieter was the adroit alpha female, commanding the stage with self-confident inner fire. She has a voice that wakes up old regrets, nostalgia, and forgotten crushes. She is a formidable performer channeling her energy into a character that is like both easy flowing water and scalding desert sun.

Director S.C. Lucier has shaped a heroic, big-hearted, and finely detailed mighty musical fable drenched in clear vision and perfectly executed staging. It’s a tight, well-polished, professional work that speaks of a successful rehearsal period where excellence was aimed for and achieved. Suzanne Ponomarenko’s choreography was clever, with no extraneous moves–everything was distilled to the essential gesture and physical expression, which was deeply satisfying to see.

I left this show feeling a little sad, looking for a bit of rainfall to match my melancholic mood, and I kept repeating to my husband–“That was just beautiful!”

Woman Around Town Review: HELD Captivated

by Marti Sichel in Playing Around

Sometimes it’s really hard to hold your applause until the end. Such is the case with HELD: A Musical Fantasy, now playing at Drom as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Kelly Maxwell (book and lyrics) and Meghan Rose (composer) have worked their own kind of magic, crafting a lovely fairy tale filled with sophisticated, beautifully layered songs. HELD is about love of all sorts as much as it’s about selfishness, jealousy, sacrifice and forgiveness.

Three friends — Mera the soldier (Katie Bakalars), Bardo the baker (Alex Van Handel) and Korin the Dreamer (Hannah Ripp-Dieter) — have been trapped by an unknown “Blood Wizard,” who has kept them suspended, without hunger or thirst, for weeks. Their cell is a cold stone room without windows or a door, and the only escape is into memory, where they put together the pieces that eventually solve the mystery of their captor’s identity.

Mera and Korin have been best friends since they were girls, though their families discouraged the relationship. Mera knew she was destined to kill or be killed, and Korin, as a Dreamer — a kind of magician — is supposed to protect and sustain life. As a child, Bardo had followed them to the clearing in the woods where they often met and ever since the three have been inseparable. Now, however, war approaches their village and Mera and Korin are called to take up their family mantles. Their destinies are at odds, but the source of their greatest strain has remained secret until recently. As it happens, Korin loves Mera, who loves Bardo, who loves Korin.

The non-linear structure and parallel narrative may confuse at first, but as the plot builds toward its inevitable conclusion the symmetry becomes the means of ramping up tension and feeling. It’s easy to see what’s coming from the hints dropped like breadcrumbs along the way, but that doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of the story or change the fact that the music and performances are all excellent. The three leads’ voices complement one another with crispness and bell-like clarity.

The production I attended suffered from some sound inconsistency, mainly uneven microphones, which wasn’t as terrible as it could have been thanks to good projection on the singers’ parts and the somewhat intimate performance space. However there were moments when one voice was almost lost among the other two. Thankfully these moments were infrequent and the singers did well compensating vocally to make up for a lack of technology.

The music was played live on stage, with Rose at the piano and accompanists Jake Ripp-Dieter and Kristine Kruta on bass and cello, respectively. The combination of voices and music is both effective and affecting, with lots of emotion infused into every song.

Director S.C. Lucier uses all of Drom’s small stage as well as bringing the actors out into the audience at times. The back-and-forth nature of the story makes it a challenge to divide the scenes without the use of scenery and lots of props, but it was done well enough with small changes to lighting, costume changes, and by moving two small cube ottomans around the stage.

Maxwell’s choice to make the women the more dangerous and powerful characters, leaving the man to fill the role of gentle baker and consoler, was a nice means of shaking up the standard fairy tale tropes. It also makes a nice statement about pursuing your truth, no matter what others think of it.

Even if the plot was somewhat predictable, it was told with care and creativity. All told, HELD was one of the best Fringe shows I’ve seen. Get a seat while you can.

Photos: Shira Friedman Photography
Top: Katie Bakalars, Hannah Ripp-Dieter, Alex Handel

HELD: A Musical Fantasy
Fringe Venue #5 Drom
85 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009 (between 5th and 6th)
One last performance: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 25, 2016
For tickets: Fringe NYC

Theatre is Easy Review: Fantasy Meets Musical Theatre

By Kelly Maxwell; Music by Meghan Rose; Directed by S.C. Lucier
Part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival

Off Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 8.25.16
VENUE #5: drom, 85 Avenue A

by Sarah Weber on 8.22.16

BOTTOM LINE: Three close friends are trapped by a wizard’s spell, and the only way out is for one of them to die.  

The role of fantasy, like most fiction genres, is escapism—to provide a place we can run away to for a while and let reality take care of itself. Fantasy done well also explores the full scope, the good and the ugly, of human nature. In Kelly Maxwell and Meghan Rose’s Held, we watch three close friends grapple with the deep, complicated history of their relationships; just how much are they willing to forgive?

Held opens as the mysterious Blood Wizard has built a magic prison that traps our three friends: Bardo (Alex Van Handel), the hopeful and goofy baker with a penchant for punchlines; Mera (Katie Bakalars), the down-to-earth soldier who sees the world for what it is; and the idealistic Korin (Hannah Ripp-Dieter), a kind of spell-caster with incredible powers called a Dreamer. These childhood friends have found themselves encased within a cube of walls where time seems to stop. Despite being trapped for weeks they never grow hungry, their appearances haven’t changed, and considering there are no windows it’s impossible to tell day from night. And according to the Blood Wizard, the only way out is to kill Korin.

Left with only each other and their memories, the show shifts back and forth between past and present. The more we see the past, the better we understand the characters’ friendship and why they’ve been trapped here. We eventually understand the pent-up frustration between Mera and Korin, and why Korin has become increasingly distant. Does she know something about the Blood Wizard? And why are her powers waning inside the prison?

The non-linear style of Held is a bold move that’s effectively pulled off. Like the magic prison, past and present blur as the tale progresses, but not in a way that’s confusing or overly vague. In that way, the audience can experience the characters’ sense of timelessness. Though the intricacies of this friendship are captivating, certain moments drag for far too long, especially towards the end. In going back and forth in time, Maxwell repeats much of the same information, which may be why Held seems slow in parts. Though repeating some information helps the audience keep track of the story, there’s room to allow the audience to fill in gaps on their own.

Accompanying the actors are three musicans playing piano, cello, and bass, orchestrated wonderfully with John Feith’s sound design to create Held’s soundscape. With no set, Feith's design and Rose’s tragically beautiful orchestrations invite the audience to imagine time and place. To top it off, our ensemble wonderfully brings Maxwell and Rose’s songs to life. If you’re curious to see how fantasy looks in a musical, or if you generally enjoy new musical work, Held is worth checking out.

(Held plays at VENUE #5: drom, 85 Avenue A, through August 25, 2016. The running time is 1 hour 25 minutes. Performances are Tue 8/16 at 9; Fri 8/19 at 5:45; Sun 8/21 at 3; Mon 8/22 at 5; and Thu 8/25 at 7:15. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more information visit heldmusical.com.)

Held is by Kelly Maxwell. Music is by Meghan Rose. Directed by S.C. Lucier. Choreography is by Suzzanne Ponomarenko. Lighting Design is by Duane Pagano. Sound Design is by John Feith. Musicians are Meghan Rose, Jake Ripp-Dieter, and Kristine Kruta.

The cast is Katie Bakalars, Hannah Ripp-Dieter, and Alex Van Handel. 

Two made-in-Madison plays are heading to the NYC Fringe Festival

First there was “Walmartopia,” the musical satire about life in a big box that jet-setted to the New York International Fringe Festival in 2006.

Then we had “Tea Room Tango,” Doug Holtz’s play about illicit liaisons in public bathrooms, and a zombie musical that started its life as “Love Death Brains” in the Bartell Theatre. Both had revivals at the Fringe Festival after their Madison runs.

The choose-your-own-adventure comedy “You've Ruined A Perfectly Good Mystery!” made the jump from the MercLab, a converted corrugated shed theater on Fair Oaks Avenue, to the Fringe in 2011.

And this summer, two more Madison-born plays are heading to the Fringe: the musical fantasy “Held” by Kelly Maxwell and Meghan Rose, and “The 800th Annual Salvation Swing-Off,” Malissa Petterson’s comedy set in a laundromat in purgatory.

“There’s this desire to have your work seen and appreciated outside the Madison community,” said Heather Renken, artistic director of Broom Street Theater, where both “Swing Off” and “Held” got their start.

Meghan Rose co-wrote "Held" with Kelly Maxwell. She'll be in the band again at the New York International Fringe Festival and has found a new cast for the show. PHOTO BY DAN MYERS

“The truth is the work that’s being done here is really good,” Renken said. “I’m not sure we as a community appreciate how good the writing is becoming.”

The Fringe is a wide-ranging, enormous festival, encompassing 1,100 performances over a few weeks from Aug. 12-28. A stop at the Fringe can lead to future gigs — “Perfectly Good Mystery,” for example, has had several productions; “Walmartopia” had an off-Broadway run.

“Hopefully that will encourage writers to let their work go,” Renken said. “At Broom Street, we often encourage playwrights to direct their own work. We want them to have their vision in the first rendering of the play.

“Once that groundwork is laid down hopefully you can hand it to someone else, and that the piece will still stand up. You put so much into creating a piece … (then) you give it to someone and trust they’re going to give it the care you will. It’s a leap of faith.”

“Held”

“Held” began as a mini-musical, written for a theater project called “Are We Delicious?” that tasks a pick-up ensemble with writing and staging a series of short plays in a single week.

In spring 2014, “Are We Delicious? Musical Fantasy” featured an initial version of “Held.” It tells the story of an intensely empathetic dreamer named Korin, Mera, Korin’s warrior best friend, and Bardo, who balances their highly emotional trio.

Sarah Streich played Mera and Erin McConnell played Korin in "Held" when it premiered at Broom Street Theater in Madison. PHOTO BY DAN MYERS

Rose and Maxwell expanded the show for a full production at Broom Street in June 2015. At the time, Amelia Cook Fontella wrote in an Isthmus review that “Maxwell and Rose make a powerhouse of a team.”

“Held,” she said, is “well crafted, and its entertaining mix of fantasy, memorable music, and emotional ups and downs keep the audience engaged.”

In its Fringe production, “Held” is set to include the same band that played in the Broom Street production: Rose on piano, Jake Ripp-Dieter on upright bass and Kristen Brenner on cello. But Rose has secured a new cast and director.

Maxwell and Rose submitted “Held” to the Fringe knowing that Rose, a prolific local musician and Maxwell’s bandmate in Little Red Wolf, was moving to New York. For Maxwell, letting the play go has been bittersweet.

“It’s a great opportunity for her to start building a new community there,” Maxwell said of Rose. “When we submitted it, we were deluding ourselves to say I’ll go and I’ll direct it.

“It’s been a rough month emotionally, but it’s also really cool. I’m going to get to go see it, a show that I wrote performed with a whole new set of eyes.”

Interview with Kelly Maxwell

VO5. Little Red Wolf. Held. You may recognize one or more from the Madison arts scene, but did you know the same person has played a part in all three?  Kelly Maxwell made her initial mark locally as a musician, but is now sharing her talents on a different stage. “Held: A Musical Fantasy,” is playing weekends through June at Broom Street Theater. It’s Kelly’s directorial debut, and first full-length work. “Held” is on the dark side of fairytales, with the consequences of power driven by the music, and weaved between the characters – one, demonstrating charm and a gift for the supernatural – the other, a determined realist. Let’s just say it leads to a powerful end. 

I recently asked Kelly about using her own power to move between music, and theater. And why this may be the start of a real-life fairytale, come true.

Maximum Ink:  Many people may know you as part of the music community. What led you to theater?
Kelly Maxwell:
  I am very comfortable calling myself a singer, and an actor. A performer, first and foremost. I’ve been involved in Madison community theater since 2006, mostly at The Bartell Theatre and Broom Street Theater, and with several productions of locally written, original scripts; so I’m familiar with the possibility and the process of bringing original work to life. But, I never considered myself a playwright until a project called “Are We Delicious?” came along in 2012. “Delicious” is the brainchild of my friend Tony Trout, and it has been an excellent presence in our community theater scene. Since its inception, more than 100 five-minute scripts have been written, rehearsed, and performed by Madison artists! Nine of those were mine, including one musical I wrote. My writing partner for that project was none other than Meghan Rose. We were randomly, yet fortuitously, paired together and came up with a piece called “I Have To,” which ended up being the inspiration for my current work, “Held: A Musical Fantasy”.

Now, let me tell you about Meghan. We’ve been playing together since 2008 in a band called Little Red Wolf, and loved working together within that context. In 2013, she signed on to be music director of the production “Xanadu,” and convinced me to audition. I was cast as the lead, and it’s when our creative relationship expanded to include theater. “Delicious” happened right after “Xanadu,” and several months later, I was offered a slot in the 2015 Broom Street season. I accepted immediately, and knew I wanted to work with Meghan on our earlier “I Have To” piece by expanding it to full-length.
I also sang with Madison disco band VO5 from 2007 until very recently. I left to free up more of my creative energy for theater and writing.

MI:  And you lived out west, but you’re finding your groove here?   
KM:
 Yes, though I am actually an Iowa girl, born in a small-ish town on the Mississippi River called Muscatine, and went to college in Iowa City at the University of Iowa. I then spent a few years in Portland, Oregon after college, but made my way back to the midwest to be closer to my family. I chose Madison, and moved here in 2003, because it was close, but-not-too-close to my hometown, which is about 3 hours away. I considered Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Chicago, but Madison was the best fit for me because of the lakes, the size, and the progressive attitude. But, it didn’t really feel like my home until I got involved with theater.

The music and theater community is my chosen family, and it is 100% due to this community that I have chosen to stay here.

MI:  Tell me how moving away from the musical stage, and more to the theater, fits into your plans?
KM:
  It is my hope and dream to stay open to the creative possibilities all around me. There are so many people I’ve met and seen here with whom I would love to collaborate. I’m at a very exciting moment in my “career” as a semi-professional artist – I’m feeling more confident than I
ever have before, both as a performer and writer. I wouldn’t say I have found my voice, but I would say I am definitely learning how to recognize it when I hear it, and more importantly, how to listen to it. I value my own voice more than anytime in the past, and it’s an incredible feeling! My personal mantra throughout this—at times intimidating—process of writing and directing my own show has been this:  “I have a voice. I take up space. I am not perfect.” 
Just saying those words right now brings tears to my eyes. Such simple ideas, but if you are feeling it as being true for the first time, it’s incredibly powerful and freeing.

MI:  I want to hear more about your current work, “Held.” You opened to rave reviews, and sold out shows. Are you feeling a sense of accomplishment?
KM:
  “Held” is the project I’ve been working towards for many, many years, and without really knowing it. It feels like the final expression of a certain aesthetic that has been present in my art since even way back in my Iowa City days. I was mainly a visual artist then, a painter, and beginning songwriter. The imagery, the colors, the lighting design of this show and how it plays on the actors’ faces –  I recognize all these things from earlier work. I love dark, sad, beautiful, poignant, stark, ruined, intense, desperation, and love these things in contrast to purity, innocence, otherworldly, shimmery, light, and energy.

I think Meghan and I get turned on by the same kind of sounds and feelings in music, and as I developed the script, we would identify moments that could be intensified or clarified by song. She would record long piano sketches of the mood she envisioned, and I would free-write lyrics while listening to her recordings on my headphones. Then she would turn those things into the songs. It was a great way for both of us to work. Collaborative, and in the best way. Plus, she is a wizard, and works her ass off to make her music great.

MI: What’s next for you?
KM:
  I have a few ideas for my next script. Images, and bits of dialogue are floating around in my mind. We’ll just have to wait and see which ones demand to be heard.

Interview by Teri Barr, Maximum Ink Magazine

 

A Captivating New Musical

Broom Street Theater’s musical Held is a fairy-tale like adventure, set in an apocalyptic landscape of battles, dying trees and rivers that run red with blood. It unravels a complex story of three longtime friends who are, at the show’s start, trapped by a wizard’s curse in a cell with no windows or doors.

This is the first full-length work by Kelly Maxwell. Maxwell has established herself in Madison as a talented actress and musician — both she and Held’s music director and composer Meghan Rose perform as part of folk-pop foursome Little Red Wolf — and this show also marks her debut as a director. Rose has an equally impressive resume: She plays in three Madison bands and has composed music for three musicals, including one that appeared in the New York Fringe Festival.

Maxwell and Rose make a powerhouse of a team. They know what they are doing, and Held is proof. It’s well crafted, and its entertaining mix of fantasy, memorable music, and emotional ups and downs keep the audience engaged.

At the center of the emotion is Korin, played by Erin McConnell. A “dreamer” who possesses supernatural gifts, she’s girlish, self-centered and completely charming. McConnell excels in her role, maintaining a sweet impishness that hides something darker.

Her costume (by Raven Albrecht) is the simplest of all three characters’— a floor-length white halter dress — and totally stunning. It conjures the toga of an oracle, a bridal gown, and a flowing river — all reflecting aspects of Korin’s character.

As Korin’s best friend and “chosen sister” Mera, Sarah C. Streich also delivered an excellent performance on opening night. Mera is the opposite of a dreamer. She’s a realist who sees the truth that Korin cannot. Fiery and determined, Mera is a soldier on the cusp of heading off to battle with her trusty knife at her waist. Her spunk and readiness to fight can’t help but draw comparisons to Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.

Patrick Chounet’s Bardo seems a bit like a third wheel, which feels appropriate for his character. The latecomer to the group of friends, Bardo embodies the awkwardness of a teenager. His hands dangle uncomfortably at his sides and he’s overly eager to please the two girls. His simplicity and innocence make for a good balance to the other, more complicated, characters.

Held’s nine original songs are not just interludes of entertainment; they are used to further the plot and develop characters. On opening night, vocal performances were mostly strong and any imperfections were made up for by passionate delivery. The audience was asked to hold applause until the end, which allowed the music to be woven into the performance without interruption. A live band — bass, cello, and piano — accompanies the vocals.

A show that works on multiple levels, Held is simultaneously a fantastical adventure and a story about the emotional intricacies of relationships. It’s filled with poetry, humor, and gorgeous music. This dreamy fairy tale is one that won’t soon be forgotten by Madison audiences.

Review by Amelia Cook Fontella, The Isthmus

- See more at: http://isthmus.com/arts/stage/held-is-captivating-new-musical/#sthash.cdAJGDnP.dpuf