Eight or so years ago, I remember buying a ticket to see Disney's On the Record at DC's historic National Theatre. I always loved the music from the classic Disney 'princess' movies - stemming from the many hours I spent with my sister watching said movies - and I was intrigued at the thought of what was essentially a juke box revue of known and lesser known Disney tunes. While the overall production was uninspiring, I recall being hugely impressed by a young, 'girl next door-type' who lent her crystal clear soprano voice to the songs that made Princess Jasmine, Belle, and Mulan - among others - so beloved. That talent, of course, was Ashley Brown. Then fresh out of college, she went on to star as Belle in the Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast, got to fly around the New Amsterdam Theatre as the original Mary Poppins on Broadway, and has continued to perform with some of the best orchestras in the country as a solo concert artist. Since I've followed her career from the beginning, I was quite elated when she returned to the DC area this week - following a cabaret performance at the Kennedy Center several years ago - to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at the glorious Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, MD.
Backed by the impressive BSO, under the baton of fellow Broadway lover Jack Everly, Ms. Brown shared her extraordinary vocal talent with an appreciative audience. Lending her voice to Disney favorites, American standards, classic showtunes, and modern Broadway hits, she demonstrated that she can take on virtually any ingénue song and also revealed - while wearing more dresses than I thought was possible in a single evening - a knack for musical comedy that I didn't know she had. While the energy and enthusiasm of the orchestra players had peaks and valleys throughout the evening - some no doubt talented string players looked like they'd rather be doing anything other than play popular music - Ms. Brown's (and Mr. Everly's) most certainly did not.
In an evening where high quality vocals were the norm rather than the exception, it's rather difficult to choose just a few highlights. However, there were several selections that were particularly memorable for me. First and foremost was her rendition of The Sherman Brothers' "Feed the Birds" (from Mary Poppins). Brown never sang this song on Broadway - the Bird Woman usually sings it - but I wish she had because her interpretation was so vocally stunning and emotional that it made it seem I was hearing the song for the first time.
Another unexpected highlight was her take on Kander and Ebb's "Ring Them Bells." While it's almost impossible not to think of Liza Minnelli whenever this song is included in a concert or cabaret, I was extraordinarily impressed with not only Ashley's strong Broadway beltress take on the song, but her equally exceptional musical comedy skills. Sporting nerdy glasses and assisted by three delightful young men taking on the roles of the men that Shirley meets abroad (throughout the course of the song) - Matt Branic, Joseph Perkins Jr., and Bret Shuford - she commanded the stage like a seasoned pro. Seeing her do this song so well made me hope that she's given a chance to use her comedy skills on the Great White Way in the near future.
Another standout - which also featured Branic, Perkins, and Shuford as backup dancers - was Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse's "Le Jazz Hot" (from Victor, Victoria). Dressed in a sparkly red and black dress, Brown again displayed great showmanship, charisma, and charm. Slightly less gritty was her "Disney Medley" featuring songs that princesses from Cinderella to Ariel sang on film, which immediately keyed the audience into why she's had such a long association with Disney. Put succinctly, her voice is perfect for that music.
Finally, although her take on Stephen Schwartz's now iconic "Defying Gravity" (from Wicked) was vocally impressive - she's an absolute powerhouse and I fully appreciated that she did not screech the song as so many young (and old) singers are apt to do - it would have been nice to see her lose herself in the song a bit more and connect with the meaning of the lyrics, which pretty much amount to saying 'this is what I want and this is what I will do.' In any case, that's just a quibble. I'd love to see her as Elphaba. She'd sing the score brilliantly well and it would give her a chance to show that she can bring an angry and bitter edge to a role - rather than being a pretty princess or a stern, but loving disciplinarian.