In a few weeks, Ashley Brown will be singing “O Holy Night” onstage with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Children’s Choir in the holiday revue “Merry, Merry Chicago!,” opening Dec. 16. After that engagement ends on Dec. 23, the musical theater star will travel to her hometown of Gulf Breeze, Fla., for Christmas Eve and will sing “O Holy Night” in the church where she grew up. At 7 years old, when Brown made her solo debut, she performed the same song at the same place.
“It’s almost full circle for me,” said Brown, who originated the role of Mary Poppins on Broadway and also sang Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” But she has maintained the tradition of returning to visit her parents and siblings over the holidays and sing at Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church.
Although Brown made her reputation on Broadway, she has created 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,” 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.”
Programming a holiday concert is always a challenge, she said, to give audiences the beloved 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.”
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.”
Though her most recent studio disc, “Speak Low,” features standards from the American songbook, she hopes that her next album will be a collection of Christmas tunes from her own library of arrangements. For holiday-themed concerts at Carnegie Hall or with the New York Pops, Brown has offered 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.”
Local audiences will 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.”
She has never sung with the CSO, however, and looks forward to performing in “Merry, Merry Chicago!,” conducted by Emil de Cou. “[Chicago] is one of my favorite cities,” she said. “I call it the clean, laid-back New York. And I’ve never been there at Christmastime. I’ll be doing some shopping, and my family is coming in.”
It has been several years since Brown had to deal with the eight-shows-a-week grind of Broadway; since then, there has been a new addition to her life: her daughter, born six 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, but I want it to be the right role,” she said.
As her daughter grows up, it will be inspiring “to show her that her mom is doing what she wants to do,” she said, “and is passionate about something.” In the meantime, her husband and her parents provide child care while Brown goes to work onstage.
And on Christmas Eve, the whole family will be together.
David Lewellen is a Milwaukee-based journalist.