Footlights: Illuminating the Richmond Stage Scene

This Week: The Origins of "Sadie"

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Powerhouse productions dominate the summer stage, and the titles are familiar because the shows originally debuted years ago.

The enchanting “Dreamgirls,” currently lighting up Virginia Repertory Theatre’s stage, was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway, back in 1981. The bio-musical that Triangle Players has running, “The Boy from Oz,” established Hugh Jackman’s song-and-dance bona fides when it debuted in 1998. Even the raucous “American Idiot,” now shaking the walls of the Firehouse Theatre, has been around a while, premiering in 2010.

Where will tomorrow’s big hits come from? One possible source is a local company called Free Jambalaya, which focuses solely on developing original works. In the midst of the summer blockbusters, it opened a more intimate, personal show this weekend called “Sadie’s Last Painting,” starring McLean Jesse.

The play is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which an artist is holed up in her studio, both desperate for and scared of news from the outside world.

“We often create a show around a specific artist so I’m always approaching artists with ideas,” says Cheryl Fare, one of Free Jambalaya’s founding producers and the director of “Sadie.” “The seeds for this show were planted a couple of years ago with McLean and I talking about creating an original painting onstage during the course of a performance.”

Jesse was a natural fit given her experience both as an accomplished actress and talented visual artist. Fare continued to explore the project with her co-producer, Matt Treacy, and they eventually brought in playwright Alex Mayberry to put meat on the bones of their ideas.

The post-apocalyptic scenario developed fairly early. “I’m kind of the old lady of the group,” Fare says. “But I have young adult kids so I know that this kind of theme is really strong for under-30-year-olds.”

The production is a family affair for Fare, with her daughter, 22, working as a photographer and box office manager and her son, 20, appearing in the show.

Fare started in the local theater world more than 25 years ago. After earning a master’s degree in fine arts from Virginia Tech, she joined Theatre IV, now Virginia Repertory Theatre, as it was expanding from children’s programming into a full slate of productions for adults.

She took a break for about 10 years to focus on the more flexible vocations of songwriter and musician, returning to work for Richmond Shakespeare right when its artistic director, Grant Mudge, was leaving. Three years ago, she joined forces with Treacy.

“I really identify with [Sadie] and the challenge of finding the light in the middle of darkness,” Fare says. “This is really the story of one woman fighting to stay strong, working to see the thread of hope and create a new and better future.”

As to what’s next for her company, Fare says: “We just focus on one project at a time but there’s always stuff on the back burner. After ‘Sadie’ opens, within a week I’ll be having coffee with Matt and talking about next steps.”

Running: The current choices are nearly overwhelming. Quill’s “Twelfth Night” closes tonight, “Sadie’s Last Painting” runs until July 9, “The Boy from Oz” continues until July 16, while “American Idiot” and Swift Creek Mill’s “The Hallelujah Girls” carry on through July 23. The “Dreamgirls” keep dreaming till Aug. 7.

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