Joan Freed Used to Crunch Numbers for the Finance Industry;
Now She Stars in Her Own One-Woman Musical
BY JANIE NAFSINGER
LIFESTYLES NORTHWEST MAGAZINE
Joan Freed started her acting career in her 40s; now she's the star in the one-woman musical comedy "Chocolate Confessions," which she created.
During all those years that Joan Freed pored over actuarial tables in the world of finance, inside her lurked a singing comic actress who would emerge in her own sweet time. And it took a while.
Freed, who earned a master’s degree in math and then became an actuary working on retirement plans, had sung in high school and appeared in a production of “Carousel” her freshman year. Though she loved to sing, performing intimidated her. Calculate an annuity premium? No problem. Audition for a musical? Frankly, she just didn’t get the performance thing, she admits.
“I didn’t understand what it was all about,” Freed says. And yet, in choir, “I felt that something was missing — I felt the music needed more communication.”
Fast-forward to the early 1990s. Freed’s children were acting and singing in a production that the Missoula Children’s Theatre was staging in Lake Oswego, where the Freeds moved in 1980. “I was watching them and thought, ‘This is really intriguing,’ ” Freed recalls.
So she started taking musical theater classes and auditioned for a production of “Kiss Me, Kate” at Lake Oswego Community Theatre (now Lakewood Theatre Company), landing a role in the show’s ensemble.
“It was so exciting. I think I was realizing this was the further development of the communication and the music,” she says.
Now Freed stars in her own one-woman musical comedy, “Chocolate Confessions,” which she also wrote. The show, in which Freed plays more than a dozen roles, is her full-time job these days. She and her husband, Bruce, who also was an actuary, retired from the financial services company they co-managed in 1999 so they could explore other interests. Bruce took up painting and political campaign work; his wife entered show business.
And together the Freeds run “Chocolate Confessions,” which made its debut in 2001 and started touring the country. The show’s newest version, featuring two new songs, continues through Nov. 18 at the World Trade Center Theater in downtown Portland.
“I’m a total late-bloomer boomer,” Freed says with a laugh. Looking back at her younger self, “I would have been astonished at what I’m doing now,” she says.
On the other hand, she also remembers herself at age 5. “I used to get so excited when my mom put on a record of Ethel Merman in ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ ” she says. It’s no coincidence, then, that “Chocolate Confessions” ends with a rousing Ethel Merman-like number called “There’s No Business Like Sweet Business.”
“It’s sort of like this has come full circle in a strange way,” Freed says.
Freed grew up in Los Angeles and attended Occidental College, where she met Bruce on the first day of calculus class. They married and worked in Los Angeles for a couple of years but wanted to leave the city and start a family. So they moved to Oregon and settled in a brick house in Lake Oswego, just a few blocks from what is now Lakewood Center for the Arts. They had three children and ran the Actuarial Department for Sedgwick James, sharing child-rearing and job responsibilities.
“We’ve done all these things together, and now we’re running a musical comedy,” Freed says.
Before “Chocolate Confessions,” Freed appeared in about 20 different shows for other area theater companies, including Lakewood Theatre, Tigard’s Broadway Rose and Portland’s Musical Theater Company. Last year she played the naive Iowa housewife in “Menopause the Musical,” a touring show that featured a local cast and ran for 10 months in Portland.
Freed started collecting songs and staged her first one-woman show, “Crossword Puzzle,” in 1999. The show, set in a coffee shop where a woman is working on a puzzle, had its sad moments, and Freed decided she wanted her audience to laugh, not cry. So she created “Chocolate Confessions,” set in a chocolate shop.
Since its debut six years ago, “Chocolate Confessions” has toured more than 25 other cities around the United States, from New York to Seattle to Helena, Mont. The show’s biggest run to date was in 2002-03 — 21 weeks at the Portland Art Museum’s theater.
Freed and her husband ran the show entirely by themselves. Joan was the cast, and Bruce the entire crew — box office manager, lobby manager, business manager, the works. Together they co-produced.
“Whenever you produce your own show, it’s a huge amount of work,” Freed says. “You do everything, including getting people to see it.”
And the audiences keep coming to see Freed play chocolate shop owner Coco Bliss and all the characters who pop in and out of her store, singing songs with such titles as “Everything’s Coming Up Chocolate,” “Craving Nine to Five” and “Ode to Sara Lee.” Freed typically takes popular songs and writes new lyrics for the tunes (example: “It’s Still Rocky Road for Me,” a take-off of Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock ’n’ Roll to Me”).
Audiences of a certain age also will recognize advertising jingles from the 1960s and a “Perry Mason” style skit. Seeing “Chocolate Confessions” is like “coming to a happy place and leaving your troubles behind,” Freed says. “Candy and chocolate take you back to your childhood — it’s very gratifying, very immediate, very simple and joyful.”
The current run of “Chocolate Confessions” has reached a new level because the Freeds now have an actual crew, including a set designer, lighting designer, soundman, music supervisor (in charge of the recorded orchestrations), stage manager and concessions manager (selling chocolate treats during intermission). Even the Freeds’ three children help out. Sons Adam, who just started law school, and Noah, a Lewis and Clark College junior, are marketing coordinators. Daughter Marie, who works at the Lake Oswego Library, serves as her mother’s “focus group” with Bruce.
Freed wants to take “Chocolate Confessions” on the road again after its run at the World Trade Center.
And yes, she likes chocolate. Milk chocolate is her favorite: “I like creamy chocolate that’s just on the edge of melted.”
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