Although Ashley Brown made her name as a Broadway star, she also enjoys a parallel career as a soloist in pops concerts with many of America’s top orchestras. “I wanted to see who Ashley was onstage vs. playing all these iconic characters like Mary Poppins or Belle [in “Beauty and the Beast”],” she said. It is a different challenge to “tell the story of a song without costumes and sets and lights. I can take the audience on a ride through different songs.”
After appearing last season with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor Emil de Cou and the Chicago Children’s Choir in the holiday revue “Merry, Merry Chicago!,” Brown returns for her second go-round, with six concerts Dec. 15-23. “Chicago is one of my favorite cities,” she said. “I call it the clean, laid-back New York.”
Brown, who originated the role of Mary Poppins on Broadway and also sang the Mother Abbess in the 2015 national tour of “The Sound of Music,” loves holiday music. But programming a holiday concert is always a challenge, she said. It’s important to give audiences the tunes that they want to hear, but in a way that the songs don’t sound clichéd. Brown commissions many of her own arrangements, but is “always game to learn something new. If the orchestra has something in their library, and they say, ‘Oh, you have to sing this,’ I love learning new things.”
Plus, she “wants it to be fun for the musicians to play,” she said. “I’m making music with the orchestra, up there on the same stage. On Broadway, you never see their faces. I want it to be challenging and to make sure that everyone has a good time.” For holiday-themed concerts at Carnegie Hall or with the New York Pops, Brown favors yuletide staples such as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “I Wonder as I Wander” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Even in a 2,000-seat concert hall, Brown tries to keep things intimate. “I’m having conversations all night with the orchestra and the audience,” she said. “I try to pretend that I’m in a little club, so that people feel they’re part of something instead of just watching.”
Local audiences might remember Brown from Lyric Opera of Chicago productions of the musicals “Oklahoma!” and “Show Boat.” Of her performance in the latter, Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein described Brown as “a charmer who sings sweetly, kicks up her heels prettily and strikes good romantic chemistry.”
In recent years, Brown has been away from the eight-shows-a-week grind of Broadway; since then, there has been a new addition to her life: her daughter, born 18 months ago. Going back to a long musical run would keep Brown at home in New York, but it also would mean missing bedtimes. “I know sometime I’ll go back,” she said, “but I want it to be the right role.”
A version of this article was first published in 2016 on CSO Sounds & Stories.