By Richard Burnett
A decade ago, Remy Partlow’s family in Alaska was in crisis. Abandoned by the father, their mother suffered from bipolar depression and Remy wrestled with autism. Later, trapped in an abusive relationship, Remy fled 4,000 miles to Central Florida, escaping a violent, drug-addicted boyfriend.
Today, the pain of those days has gradually faded for Partlow, a well-known Beacon College alum, writer and nascent playwright. Remy has teamed with Beacon professor Dr. Zachary Isrow and local theater professional Marianna Raho on a play entitled “Raven’s Stars” — based on Remy’s life. The musical is set to run March 9-12 at The Edge Theater in Chicago.
From the vistas of Alaska to the lights of the Windy City, the journey has been surreal, said Partlow, who overcame adversity to experience self-discovery at Beacon and graduate near the top of the Class of 2019. In the play, the main character Raven escapes similar peril to search for the stars of her constellation — that is, her hopes and dreams.
Remy credited Isrow and Raho for their help with the challenging creative process of writing a musical play.
“When I first started working on this as a musical, I had no idea what would be involved,” said Partlow, who until now has focused on poetry and fiction writing. “The writing process for a musical play is so different than what I have experienced before. I mean, you can’t just think about the reader; you must think about the audience, actors, musicians, set designers, stagehands, and everybody.”
A hit with the people
By all indications, the creation of “Raven’s Stars” has been a life-changing experience for Partlow and the team. After nearly three years of work, they unveiled the first version of the play last summer in a workshop reading at Leesburg’s Melon Patch Theater. Even though it was still a work in progress, it was a hit with the people.
“I think we knew we had something special after that early reading,” said Isrow, a veteran of musical theater and an eclectic musician whose influences range from punk rock to classical. “It was a big moment when we saw everything come to life on stage and the effect it had on the audience.”
It reminded Isrow of when he first heard Remy’s life story in October 2019 when speaking at the college’s 30th anniversary celebration. He worked with Remy on the presentation.
“As Remy shared their story and sang a song, it was so powerful,” he said. “I had heard it before, in rehearsal. But when I saw the audience’s reaction that day, I could see how much people were moved by it. I started thinking to myself, hey, we should take that story and turn it into a musical. Fortunately, Remy was enthusiastic about the idea.”
And three made a team
As Isrow tackled the job of writing songs for the play, he soon knew he needed help. “I got through the first verse of the first song and started realizing that I’m really not that great of a lyricist,” he said. “I can come up with good music, and I have sparks of good lyrics, but I quickly hit a wall.”
He called upon long-time friend Marianna Raho, a teacher, singer, director, voice coach and multi-talented theater pro. She agreed to join the team and help write the music and lyrics, develop the script and direct the action.
“The three of us have worked together to shape the story and give it a much broader appeal,” Isrow said. “It’s still the same story arc — it’s still Remy’s autobiography — but we’ve modified it to fit a wider audience.”
Working as a team is a creative synthesis, Raho said. Each member brings something different to the table: Partlow’s poetic life story narrative, Isrow’s powerful musical talent, and Raho’s lyrical instincts and professional theater acumen. All of it revolves around Remy’s story.
“Remy is a rock star and a phenomenal writer, who writes lines that cut right to the heart,” Raho said. “It’s just incredible the things that they went through, but I’m so happy for the life found now.”
‘Raven’s Stars’ aligning
Several key moments have helped the team believe the play would become reality: finding the affordable Edge Theater venue (everything else until then was too expensive); finding an investor – the East Tennessee Music Co., a music therapy nonprofit; and the resounding success of the Melon Patch show.
“We got such good feedback from that public reading! The people loved it,” Raho said. “And nobody left the theater until the end. Wow!”
One theatergoer that night was Dennis Gleason, resident director of the Taveras Theater Company and a friend of Raho’s. As a veteran director of plays from New York to Florida, he gave the team valuable insights and a vote of confidence. He read the script ahead of time and recommended some revisions that the team incorporated.
“When I saw it on stage, they did a fine job and I was pleasantly surprised they were so welcoming of my ideas,” Gleason said. “I’m so excited they get to go to Chicago and do it with a professional cast there. Remy’s story is one that anybody can relate to, even if they haven’t been through the exact same things. The play makes their story accessible to all people.”
Partlow’s biggest desire is to see the play make a difference in people’s lives. At the same time, the team is hoping the Edge Theater debut will open doors to bigger venues.
“Our goal is to make enough money from these performances to go off-Broadway with it,” Partlow said. “And if we’re successful there, who knows what’s next? But I’m keeping my goals and dreams modest for now. We’ve already exceeded my original dreams. The idea that we’re actually going to have it in Chicago, and we have this phenomenal cast and great music. It all blows me away.”