THURSDAY, Feb. 4 — At just 34, Ashley Brown already has a career that would make many Broadway actors jealous.
The young actress made her Broadway debut in 2005, taking on the role of Belle in Walt Disney Theatrical’s musical version of “Beauty and the Beast.” In 2006 she played Mary Poppins in the first Broadway version of “Mary Poppins,” a role she reprised in a touring version of the production in 2009 and 2010. She has also performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and recorded the song “Kiss Goodnight” for Disneyland’s 60th anniversary.
Brown is on a national “The Sound of Music” tour, which comes to the Wharton Center Tuesday. City Pulse caught up with the singer to discuss her role in the musical and life on the road.
Tell me about your role in this production of “The Sound of Music.”
I play Mother Abbess — I’m pretty sure I’m the youngest Mother Abbess ever. But Jack O’Brien, our director, had this brand new idea about the show and about the relationship between Mother Abbess and Maria. It’s been really fun to explore and bring something different to the role that hasn’t been done before.
What is it like playing a nun?
You know, I originated Mary Poppins on Broadway, so I’m getting used to playing these refined women. It’s interesting because I didn’t grow up Catholic at all. I grew up Methodist. To learn about that religion and how regimented it is — everything about it has been really fun to learn about and to bring it to the character.
Of the roles you’ve tackled so far in your career, do you have a favorite?
I guess it would have to be Mary Poppins, because I got to build her from the ground up. That was a huge challenge, but it was very rewarding.
What do you like to do when you’re on the road? Do you get out and see the cities?
It depends on the weather, and it depends on the city. I’ve had family come visit when we were in Orlando and Miami, so it was fun to get out and visit these places I haven’t been to in a while. And then there’s colder cities — like we’re about to go to — that I’m nervous about. I’ll probably stick closer to the hotel. But when you’re doing eight shows a week, you just have to take it a week at a time. You have to save up energy. But I like to get out and explore.
What kind of places do you look for in a new city?
I love finding new restaurants and I love seeing beaches. I grew up in Gulf Breeze, Fla., which is a small town near Pensacola. Even though I live in New York, I’m still a beach girl at heart. I take my dog, Eddie, with me. We explore nature trails, those kind of things. I like to get outdoors, because I’m in a dark theater for a majority of my life. I try to get outside as much as possible.
How does touring with a show differ from performing on Broadway?
There’s a lot of differences. When you’re out on the road, your company and the show is all you have. You become a very close family. We travel together, we have dinner together, we do the show together. On Broadway, everybody has their own family there. You just come to work and you go home. You have friends in the show, of course, but you don’t socialize as much as you do on the road. Out here that’s all you have.
Moving around, getting acquainted with a theater every week, it makes go by so fast. It’s crazy. It goes by faster because your dressing room’s different, backstage is different, the front of house is different. It’s always fun to navigate your way through new theaters.
Do you have a favorite point in the show that you look forward to every night?
Absolutely. I sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in the show at the end of Act I. That’s always my favorite part, because it’s so beautiful. I love the song, and the orchestration is beautiful. I just enjoy singing that every night. It’s like the national anthem of musical theater.
I noticed you’re pretty active on social media. Do you enjoy interacting with fans?
It’s been great. I’m on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. At first, the fans were like, “You’re 30. Why are you playing Mother Abbess?” So there were some people who were going to have opinions — as there always is, no matter what you do. But people have been very receptive to it. The people who were naysaying in the beginning have actually come around and said, “I was wrong. You were great, and it works.” So it’s been really nice to keep an open dialogue about my role.
What I think people appreciate about it is that the relationship between me and Maria is unique. We’re bringing something else to it. So many people have seen the movie, so many people know the music — so to do something different, it’s rocked some people’s worlds. But I think that’s what this needed, a little bit of a facelift. It’s been really great to hear that people love it.
Do you have any advice for young actors looking to get to Broadway?
When you’re in school — this was told to me, and I did it — work on your weaknesses while people around you care. When you’re in college and you’re in high school, do what you feel you’re not as good at. Because once you get to New York or L.A. and you’re auditioning, nobody cares. They just want you to be good. So while you’re in an educational atmosphere where people can help you, use them. Make them help you and get better at the things you feel you’re not as good at. That’s what I did in college. I really worked on the things that I felt weren’t my strong points, so I graduated as more of a triple threat than when I went in. It’s always easy to work on the things you’re really good at. It’s safer; you feel protected.
And then just stay you. I’m still the southern girl from Gulf Breeze, and I grew up to play an English nanny. Anything can happen. Just stay true to you, and make sure you love what you’re doing, whether it’s theater or not.
What’s an example of a weak point that you worked on?
I went (into college) as a singer. I feel like I was put on this planet to sing. And don’t get me wrong, I worked my tail off on being a singer, since I was 14 years old, but I feel like that’s something that came easier to me than acting or dancing. Monologues used to give me heartburn. The thought of doing a monologue in front of my teachers or peers absolutely terrified me, because it’s something I hadn’t done a lot. So in college I did it over and over and over until it wasn’t a big deal. And it made me a better actor, it made me more confident. It was scary, but I had to do it.
“The Sound of Music”
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9-Thursday, Feb. 11; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13; 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14
Tickets start at $38/$25 students
Wharton Center, 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com