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Outside The Box

Date: Sep 28, 2007


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Cheryl Freeman insists that she's only set foot in a Wal-Mart once.

"I went to the one in Secaucus, New Jersey, in April to get rain boots," recalls Freeman, who stars in the Off-Broadway musical satire Walmartopia.

Freeman offers this fact as if it were a guilty confession. That's understandable, since Walmartopia, written by the Wisconsin-based husband-and-wife team of Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn, takes on the megachain Wal-Mart for everything from its union-busting and lowball wages to allegations of sexual harassment and the sale of sweatshop-produced goods.

Freeman plays a put-upon employee of the "big box" store whose wages are so low that she can't afford to move out of the hotel where she lives with her daughter, also a Wal-Mart employee, played by Nikki M. James. The two women are asked to participate in a cheery corporate show, but before long they find themselves time-travelling to a dystopian, Wal-Mart-dominated future.

How much did Freeman know about the case against Wal-Mart before she took the part?

"I didn't know anything about it," she admits with a laugh. "I had no idea about the sort of stuff that goes on inside the large corporations," she continues, referring not only to the company's policies but to some of its more eccentric practices, such as rah-rah cheers and musical productions to raise internal morale, which are recreated (with a twist or two) in the stage musical.

"Now I'm very knowledgeable about it, and I have to say, I became a little sad about the whole thing," Freeman says. "To think about all the workers who are immigrants who are locked in at night to work overtime--it's unsettling. I look at it as abuse. And it doesn't feel good."

As an actress, she's more familiar with the ups and downs of intermittent employment than with the grind of an unsatisfying long-term, low-wage job. But she notes that as a member of the actors' unions, she gets health insurance even when she's working at financially strapped theatres--and that's not true of most Wal-Mart employees.

"How can they not have health benefits when they're working for this multijillion-dollar corporation? And the company gets away with it--that's what I don't get."

In Palisades Park, NJ, where Freeman lives, "Half of the town is immigrants, and I look at how hard they work to form their own businesses. They come here with a drive to succeed."

Though she's not an immigrant, Freeman's character, Vicki, has a similar drive. But such get-ahead ambition can sometimes stop short of real empowerment.

"They have that drive, but then there's that part of them that feels like they can't go any further, and they don't want to jeopardize what they have," Freeman says. "So many people say, 'I hate my job, but this is my life.' It becomes a comfort zone, and people don't want to step outside of it."

As a creative person, Freeman says, "If I step outside of my comfort zone and trust that something beautiful will happen, it does. We're not guaranteed the next day anyway. So what do you have to lose if you just step out and try something new?"

When Freeman played the Acid Queen in Tommy on Broadway, that was certainly something new for her.

"When I did interviews, people asked me, 'Were you a Who fan?' I said, 'No.' And they'd say, 'Well, how do you know how to sing that song?' And I said, 'It's all in the song.' Of course, while I had the job, I met The Who, and Pete Townsend was there every day. Of course I became a fan."

Before succeeding on Broadway--she has also appeared in the short-lived projects Play On, The Civil War and All Shook Up--Freeman lived for a time in Australia, working as a singer for hire and getting to know and love the country.

"I love the outdoors; it's so rejuvenating and inspiring for me," says Freeman, a native of Washington, D.C. Another place she lived for a time was near the ocean in San Diego, where both Play On and Tommy had their pre-Broadway start. "I think I'm from a different era. If I could, I'd be out on a tractor all day, with 20 dogs and horses around."

She says she used to bring an unlikely accessory on the road.

"I always carried a fishing rod when I was on tour," Freeman says, warming to the memory. "When other people were hanging out in the town, I'd go fishing and come back to the hotel room, put ice in the bathtub and put the fish in there. I'd carry an electric fry pan with me, and cook up the fish in the room. The best part was when the maid would come in and see the fish in the bathtub."

Freeman says she's booking concert tours for next year, and that composer Frank Wildhorn, for whom she sang The Civil War, has written a new score with her in mind called Carmen Forever. While it's nice to have a composer writing for her voice, most of the time, Freeman says, "You have to create your own opportunities so you're not stuck saying, 'Woe is me' because you don't have a show. You can't wait around.

"I do have those moments where I might get down. But when I'm having a pity party and I'm not inviting anybody, I just have to remind myself: 'Get up, girl--the party's over.' "

And the next time she needs some cheap shoes?

"I can just go to Costco."

Walmartopia is at the Minetta Lane Theatre through Dec. 30. For tickets, go here.