Good things happen to Ashley Brown in St. Louis. Her route to Mary Poppins, which opens at the Fox Theatre this week, began here six years ago when she was cast in the chorus at the Muny. "It was just such a great time in my life," Brown recalls. "That's where I got my Equity card. I was still in college, but when I was chosen for the Muny I felt that I could finally call myself a professional. I auditioned as a singer. Then they made me a Follies girl in Crazy for You, and I had to learn the Susan Stroman choreography. That really taught me how to tap dance. I'm tapping in Mary Poppins now because in St. Louis I had to learn Crazy for You in a week."
Brown spent two summers at the Muny. In the 2004 staging of Meet Me in St. Louis, she played elder sister Rose. One week after she graduated from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, she was cast in Disney's On the Record, a musical revue drawn from 74 years of Disney movies. "Everything seemed to be happening so easily," she says now. "I kept asking myself, 'What did I do to deserve this?' In the show I got to sing all those magical songs [including a haunting a cappella rendition of the show's opener, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes"] that paralleled how I was feeling at that moment."
In March 2005, during the revue's two-week run at the Fox, Brown learned that Disney Theatricals was bringing her into New York to audition for Belle in the long-running Beauty and the Beast. She played that role for eight months. "Looking back on it now," she says, "I have a feeling it was a bit of a test. I was so young. I think the people at Disney wanted to know if I could do eight shows a week. Did I have a strong work ethic? Could I deal with the press and all the other pressures and responsibilities that go along with a Broadway show? I think Beauty and the Beast prepared me. So when Mary Poppins came about, I could handle it."
Brown auditioned nine times for Mary Poppins before she was cast: "For the first three weeks of rehearsal, our director never gave me a note. Nobody was getting notes. And of course you get paranoid. He's Sir Richard Eyre from England, and I'm just this country bumpkin from Florida. But his approach to work is to let the actors bring what we want to bring to the role for as long as possible. Then he starts tweaking you. Which in retrospect turned out to be lovely, because you aren't going in on day one being told what to do."
After two years as Mary Poppins on Broadway, Brown is now starring in the national tour. "A big part of me isn't ready to leave this role yet," she says. "A role like this comes along so rarely in a career, sometimes never." The actress is a refreshing change from most theater stars today, who refuse to tour and who demand ever shorter runs in New York. "I think actors do that because we are always so worried about the future," she says. "During On the Record and Beauty and the Beast, I too was constantly worrying about what was next. But when I got into Mary Poppins, I said to myself, 'I'm going to enjoy this and not worry about everything all the time.'
"I will never forget the day after we opened in New York. I was going out the stage door like I always do, and somebody said, 'What's next?' And I thought to myself, 'Are you serious? I just opened this huge show! I'm really happy to be where I am.'"
Nearly three years later, as Ashley Brown returns to the city where good things happen, she still is.
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