DIVA TALK: Chatting with Katie Clarke and Ashley Brown

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Katie Clarke and Ashley Brown
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Katie Clarke as Clara in The Light in the Piazza and Ashley Brown as Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
Katie Clarke as Clara in The Light in the Piazza and Ashley Brown as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Joan Marcus

Hello, diva lovers! This week we chat with two young women who are both making their Broadway debuts: The Light in the Piazza’s Katie Clarke and Beauty and the Beast’s Ashley Brown.

KATIE CLARKE

Katie Clarke had not yet received her BFA in musical theatre from Sam Houston State University when she was offered the chance to replace Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara as Clara Johnson in the award-winning production of The Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

“I had to take my finals on-line,” the 21-year-old Texas native recently told me. “I had two weeks to learn the show, and I was taking finals and trying to get my teachers to let me graduate because [my graduation was] in December.”

Clarke joined the New York company, which currently includes Tony Award winner Victoria Clark as Margaret Johnson and Aaron Lazar as Fabrizio Naccarelli, Dec. 9 and says her Broadway debut has been a bit surreal but also “amazing. Victoria Clark is a dream. . . And, Aaron Lazar is incredible, too. The cast is so strong and supportive as well as the stage management and crew and creative [team]. Everyone is so supportive and wonderful. It’s been an incredible process.” Clarke’s road to Piazza began about a year-and-a-half ago when she met Piazza conductor Kimberly Grigsby through a mutual friend, Clarke’s first voice teacher. “[Kimberly] remembered me in November when Kelli O’Hara decided to leave The Light in the Piazza,” says Clarke, “and [she] gave [casting director] Janet Foster my name.” What followed was a fairly quick audition process just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

After an initial audition where Clarke was asked to perform songs from Adam Guettel’s Tony-winning score as well as a few Piazza scenes, Clarke had a callback with most of the creative team in attendance. “Adam Guettel was really the only one not there,” the young actress says. “[Book writer] Craig Lucas was there, [director] Bart Sher, [musical stager] Jonathan Butterell, [musical director] Ted Sperling — the powerhouse that created the show. That was exciting,” she adds with a laugh.

About that callback Clarke explains, “I was the last girl to go that day. They had me go through all the material, then kind of kept me outside waiting. It was pretty crazy going in and out of the room to do different things. I was there by myself waiting to see what they wanted me to do next! . . . [After] they were done with me, I left and I had no idea what was going on. I went to meet my mom, who was here with me, and I met her in this little café. I told her, ‘I guess they liked me. I’m not sure. Nothing definite was said.’ We sat in the café for about 20 minutes after my audition, and then Janet Foster called to tell me they were ready to offer me a contract!”

Clarke says she was in a state of disbelief when the role of Clara — the physically mature but mentally naïve young woman who falls for a young man while on vacation in Italy — was finally offered to her. “The whole week I had just been trying to learn the music and get ready for my auditions and not make a complete idiot of myself in front of all the people who were going to be seeing me,” she explains. “When it finally was said that they were ready to offer me a contract, it really took me a long time to grasp that concept that they wanted me to do the show.”

Clarke, who began performing in high school and names Sutton Foster and Cady Huffman as favorite actors, credits a college friend for helping her realize that acting would become her chosen profession. “I met a person in college,” she says, “my best friend. We ended up moving in together. We were roommates, and we just encouraged together. He really was the person in my life that encouraged me, and vice versa.” Among the productions Clarke appeared in during her college years were The Sound of Music (as Liesl von Trapp), Smokey Joe’s Café, Ragtime (as Mother) and The Exonerated (as Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs). She also has one regional credit: a chorus role in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Anything Goes.

And, now, Clarke gets the chance to perform the role of Clara eight times a week for Broadway audiences; she says she especially enjoys the way Clara “connects with the things around her, the beauty around her. [That is] truly one of my favorite things about her, how she connects with the art in Florence and the life in Florence. It opens up a part of her heart.”

Beginning Feb. 28, Tony winner Victoria Clark will no longer play Tuesday or Wednesday evening performances in order to spend more time with her young son. That will give Katie Clarke a chance to play opposite another Margaret, Patti Cohenour, who usually portrays Signora Naccarelli. “[Victoria] was out last week, and I was able to perform with Patti Cohenour. . . . I think Patti is a lot quieter. Vicki plays the part very bold and strong. At the same time, she has a wound that is her loveless marriage. But she has that very strong side of her that’s so upfront, and that’s the part you see. Patti has a little less of the strong front. Both are very brilliant and both beautifully done.”

As for her own future plans? “Only the good Lord knows. My life now is completely different [than I expected], so I couldn’t say what I would even dream of happening in the future. I’m sure what actually is going to happen would exceed my wildest dreams.”

[Katie Clarke is scheduled to be part of The Light in the Piazza through July 2. The musical plays the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.]

ASHLEY BROWN

Ashley Brown, the current Belle of Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast, is living out a childhood dream each night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. “I saw the Beauty and the Beast tour when it came to Atlanta, Georgia, when I was probably about 12,” the singing actress told me earlier this week. “I was such a Disney baby. I watched those movies over and over again. I basically had ‘Beauty and the Beast’ memorized. [To be in the show now] is just a dream come true — you never think it’s going to actually happen to you!”

Though she is only 23, Brown, a native of Gulf Breeze, FL, already has a bit of a history with Disney Theatricals. Upon receiving a BFA in musical theatre from Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, Brown was cast in the national tour of the Disney revue On the Record, an experience she relished. “It was great,” says Brown. “The role I was playing I got to sing every Disney heroine song you can even imagine. And you’re touring the country for free. You’re getting paid to see all these wonderful cities and theatres. We had a great group of people — I really had a lot of fun.” And, it was during the On the Record tour that the chance to play Belle arose. “In the middle of the tour,” Brown explains, “Disney approached me and said that they wanted to bring me in for the role of Belle. We were in Detroit, Michigan, at the time, so they flew me in on my day off, which is a Monday. I actually went in twice for the role. It wasn’t until about two months after that that I actually found out I was going to be Belle.”

Brown wound up making her Broadway debut as Belle on Sept. 20 after a rather quick rehearsal period. “That was the weirdest thing for me,” Brown says. “We only rehearsed for three weeks, and it wasn’t every day. I was off on Mondays and Wednesdays. We only rehearsed for five hours at a time. That was the shortest amount of time that I’ve ever rehearsed for a show. In college,” she adds with a laugh, “you rehearse for three months and then only do it for one weekend! And, for On the Record I was part of the workshop and the rehearsal process, so we rehearsed for a couple months for that show, too.”

Despite this short rehearsal period, her first performance — viewed by her family, the On the Record cast and several Disney executives — was “amazing. I was like, ‘I want to remember this. I don’t want it to be an out-of-body experience.’ My opening night was my first night with lights, first night with orchestra, first night with sound. I had been in costume before, but I had never been in costume with everybody else in costume. My put-in rehearsal, I was the only one all Belled up! Everybody else was in jeans. . . . The cast was so great, and I just trusted them so much I knew that if I slipped up, they would be there for me, so that pressure was off. Deep down, I knew that I knew [the role], and I knew I’d be fine. The show is so well written that it was so easy to memorize.”

Brown says her favorite moments onstage include singing “Change in Me” and dancing up a storm in the “Be Our Guest” production number. She also is especially fond of the reactions of the young children, who make up a large portion of the Beauty audience. “They get so involved,” Brown says. “We call them Belle screamers! As soon as I’m lit up in the very beginning, they’re like, ‘Ah, Belle, over here, Belle.’ They think I’m going to be able to stop and [say], ‘Hey, what’s up?’ Obviously I can’t, and it’s just so funny. Whenever I ask questions, they answer them for me. I’ll say, ‘Who’s there?,’ and they [answer], ‘It’s the Beast, it’s the Beast!’ They definitely get really involved!”

Brown believes the show’s longevity — Beauty and the Beast is now the sixth longest-running show in Broadway history — is due to the fact that it “caters to every age and every different type of person. I know it’s one of the quotes on the side of our building, but I really think it’s true. It’s something that the kids will enjoy and the parents will enjoy, too, because there are mature jokes that won’t offend the children. We’re all dressed up, and there’s candlesticks — that will entertain any child!”

The young performer, who began singing in church when she was six, names Academy Award winner Julie Andrews as a particular inspiration. “I watched all of her movies,” Brown says, “and sometimes I would sing in an English accent when I was little. My mom would be like, ‘What are we going to do with this child?’” Brown began studying voice during her freshman year of high school. “That was the same time I did my first musical,” she adds. The role? Tiger Lily in Peter Pan. It wasn’t until she attended the Broadway Theater Project in Tampa, FL, however, that she realized acting would be her career. “Ann Reinking [runs the project]. I was taking dance classes with Gwen Verdon, Gregory Hines — these huge people would come and teach these workshops. It was just for three weeks, and you had to audition to get in. . . You’d take classes all day, put together a show at night and perform the show at the end of the three weeks. It was then that I realized that this is exactly what I want to do. I loved the intense classes — the acting, singing and the dancing. That’s when it came together for me.”

During college she had the chance to play a wide variety of roles — Maria in West Side Story, Cunegonde in Candide and the title role in Violet — all of which she enjoyed but none so much as playing Belle in Beauty. In fact, Brown, who is scheduled to stay with the show until May, hopes she will be able to extend her contract. “Unless they make me leave,” she says, “it would take a huge, huge other opportunity to make me leave. It’s such a rewarding show for me, and the cast is amazing. I truly look forward to going to work.”

[Beauty and the Beast plays the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway and 46th Street. Call (212) 307-4747 for tickets.]

DIVA TIDBITS
How exciting that Julia Murney will finally get the chance to wrap her rich, rangy alto around Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked score. Murney, the Wild Party actress who made her Broadway debut earlier this season in Lennon, will replace Stephanie J. Block as the green-faced Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked beginning March 8. That day will also see the arrival of Alma Cuervo as Madame Morrible, P.J. Benjamin as the Wizard and Jennifer Waldman as Nessarose. On March 28, when Wicked begins its run at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, K. Todd Freeman will assume the role of Dr. Dillamond. The company also features Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda, Sebastian Arcelus as Fiyero and Logan Lipton as Boq.

A Cabaret Performance: Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch “In Alphabetical Order” is the title of a Feb. 27 benefit concert featuring the two Tony-winning theatre legends. Lincoln Center Theater’s Annual Benefit will be held at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Jack O’Brien will direct the 7 PM cabaret, which will be followed by dinner on the Grand Promenade of Avery Fisher Hall. Individual tickets are priced $1,250 and $2,500 with tables of ten priced $12,500, $25,000 and $50,000. For more information call (212) 501-3251.

MAC Award winner Lisa Asher will return to The Duplex Cabaret Theatre for a special Valentine’s Day program Feb. 14 at 8:30 PM. Asher will perform tunes by Don Henley, Janis Ian, Jule Styne and Michael Smith, and she will also be on hand after the show to autograph copies of her new CD, “Lisa Asher: Live at the Duplex.” The Duplex is located in Manhattan at 61 Christopher Street. There is a $25 cover charge and a two-drink minimum; call (212) 868-4444 for tickets.

Singer Joanne Beretta, who years ago appeared in Tommy Tune’s Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway production The Club, will make her long-awaited return to the New York cabaret scene next month at Danny’s Skylight Room. Beretta, who is being presented by Angels in America Tony nominee Kathleen Chalfant, will perform at the intimate club Feb. 3, 10 and 17 at 7 PM. About Beretta, Chalfant said in a statement, “I’m delighted to reintroduce Joanne to music lovers in New York City. She is one of the most remarkable singers and storytellers I’ve ever heard.” Cabaretgoers can expect to hear Beretta’s renditions of “Since You’ve Asked,” “For All We Know,” “My Favorite Year,” “Just Like a Woman” and “Rocket Man.” Danny’s Skylight Room is located in Manhattan at 346 West 46th Street. There is a $15 cover charge and a $12 minimum; call (212) 265-8130 for reservations.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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