‘Story of My Life: The Freak Flag Chronicles’ at Toby’s ‘Shrek’: Part 2: Ashley Johnson (The Dragon)

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She’s gonna love you forever! A big mean, fire-breathing machine! Part Two of the Story of My Life: The Freak Flag Chronicles interview series takes flight with cast member Ashley Johnson, providing the voice of The Dragon in Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia’s production of Shrek The Musical. We’re dishing out all the secrets about what it’s like playing the Dragon, and providing a few other character voices on the side.

Amanda: Introduce yourself to our readers and tell them where they may have seen you on our local stages.

 The Dragon (voiced by Ashley Johnson). Photo by Amanda Gunther.
The Dragon (voiced by Ashley Johnson). Photo by Amanda Gunther.

Ashley: My name is Ashley Johnson. I’m in Shrek right now as the voice of Dragon. I’m also Mama Bear and I do the ‘cheeps’ for the Morning Bird. Before that I did a show with Kevin McAllister with Arts Centric – their version of It’s a Wonderful Life, I did that back during the holiday and it was a lot of fun. Then before that I did The Wiz over at Toby’s of Baltimore which ran forever! But I got to play Dorothy so running forever was pretty awesome. I’ve been working at Toby’s for about seven years now. My first show was actually Dreamgirls back in 2007 at the Baltimore location. I started as the Lorrell understudy and I ended up taking over the role. I’ve done Lorrell twice now. I’ve also performed in productions of Grease, Hairspray, The Color Purple, which was one of my favorite shows to do, I got to play Squeak. And of course Smokey Joe’s Café, another one of my favorites!

What was the appeal to want to be a part of Shrek?

Well, I’ve always loved the movie, you know the cartoon back when it first came out? And then when I heard the music, man!! This music is just so heartfelt. It’s kind of crazy because you really just think of it as a cartoon but some of the lyrics are just so beautiful it’s hard to believe they were inspired by that cartoon! I knew I would love to be a part of it. There wouldn’t be a lead role for me, but I just knew I had to be a part of it, because just being in the ensemble alone was going to be so much fun!

As far as being offered the role of dragon, I had never heard the tour song “Forever” before. I had only heard the song that Dragon sings on the cast recording, the “Donkey Pot Pie” song. So when they sent me the music to learn for “Forever” I said “Whoa! This is a lot of fun!” But when I did the audition I had the flu. I was the first girl to sing out of everyone there. I said to myself “Sing it like this is a real show and you’re sick.” You know, when you get sick in a real show you just sing through it. So I went in there and I sung it as hard as I could and I just altered the last note a bit, I never hit the high note. Then of course the panel said “Excuse me, could you hit that high note?” so I told them that I could, and explained that since I was under the weather I had just wanted to change it up a little. Leaving the audition I had no idea if I had gotten the role or not, but I knew I had done the best that I could and for me that was all that mattered. When I got the phone call I almost cried on the phone because I was so happy!

What has being back at Toby’s with a lot of familiar faces been like for you?

I love my cast. They are so talented. Everybody involved in this is both talented and they come from a place of genuine goodness. It’s rare that you get to do a show and everyone just really loves each other and gets along. Like Heather? This is my first time ever doing a show with her. We’ve always worked opposite shows where if I were working at Baltimore she would be working at Columbia. And it is so cool to finally get to work with people like her, and Russell and Tina-all these Toby’s veteran performers who bring all these amazing things to the table. I had never worked with Jeffrey Shankle before and he is just amazing! He brings it every night. He literally brings, and he brings something crazy and new every night. He is just so funny and he is so great to work with! He has definitely got a handle on his character. I don’t even know how he does it, but he is just awesome, someone to look up to. And can I just say— I’ve seen him work at Toby’s for a long time, and he does not age. He’s like a beautiful porcelain doll that brings all the comedy every night.

It’s been fantastic getting to work with all four of the directorial team too. We had Pam and Doug (Pamela Wilt and Douglas Lawler, Musical Directors) where Doug did a lot of the teaching and Pam did a lot of the filling in and polishing. And then of course we had Kevin and Larry (Kevin McAllister and Lawrence B. Munsey, Directors) and I love me some Larry. It was cool going into this show because Kevin and Larry are two completely different people and I was so excited to see how this dynamic of the two of them was going to work out. Where Larry lacked Kevin had it and where Kevin lacked Larry filled it. Same thing with Doug and Pam. Dough would teach and Pam would step right in and say, “What did he teach you? Now add this on top of that.” It was really incredible because all four of them work so well together. And they really made this show amazing.

Oh, and I can’t forget my girl Toby! I love me some Toby! You know, the woman whose name is on the building. She is one of the smartest women I’ve ever met. She literally has this sense of awareness and this space is her baby. After we ran the show for her she said, “OK, now we’re going to change this, this, and this.” And once she changed those things the whole cast had this “AHA!” moment. She just made it click. Toby knows this space better than anyone else and she knows how to make every little thing work perfectly in this space. She’s sweet, she’s smart, and she’s sassy! She’s awesome. That’s my girl. Every time I see her, I tell her she’s my girl. She makes this experience complete.

Dragon (voiced by Ashley Johnson) and Donkey (Calvin McCullough). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Dragon (voiced by Ashley Johnson) and Donkey (Calvin McCullough). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

What’s it like where a lot of your performance happens off-stage. Have you ever done anything like it before?

It’s actually pretty awesome. To me this seems like kind of a voice-over situation. Actually, I wish they had some speaking lines for Dragon to say off-stage, because that would have been super-dope obviously. But I love being off-stage to do her voice. I absolutely love it. I get to sit with the Pit right there with the music and I just get to feel it. I see their energy, I feel their energy right there and they get to feel mine and it is just so awesome! When I’m up there I’m actually still wearing my blue-unitard from the Duloc number, so just picture me in blue sitting up there tucked away belting out that song.

I do get some onstage time too. I play Mama Bear. I like getting to do multiple roles because the audience gets to see you in all these different parts. I feel like when you have a really strong ensemble or a group of singers it holds up and supports the leads so that they don’t feel like they have to carry the whole show all the time. The ensemble gets to be the core support so that when Fiona or Shrek or one of the lead characters comes onto the stage the audience is all ready to go, they’re at a peak of excitement.

The Dragon character starts off as a really misunderstood character. Do you relate to that at all? Are you and dragon similar or different?

I guess the Dragon to me is kind of powerful. And while a lot of people will tell you that I’m kind of small, you know shorter in stature, I’ve also been described as powerful. I can say that I’m pretty vocal and honest and in your face. Here I am, I don’t like to sugar coat things, I just tell it like it is. And Dragon is very much like that. At the same time, Dragon has a sweet side. Later on when she wants to fall in love? I’m that way too. I love love. I love people. So we’re kind of one in the same.

What’s your favorite fairytale?

Fairytale? You know I sometimes get my fairytales mixed up with Disney classics, but I guess maybe Beauty and the Beast? Does that count as a fairytale? I think it’s a fairytale. I really appreciate that story. The fact that Belle can see through the Beast’s outer shell to what’s special inside of him, I love that. You know when she first meets the Beast he really comes off as mean, arrogant, no manners, totally disrespectful, but Belle just sees through all of that. She decides to still do the right thing. She stays sweet, she stays humble, and she stays true to who she is and that is what brings out the best in him.

You mentioned you’re doing the voice of the bird, which is a direct reference from the movie. What’s that experience like?

It’s pretty funny. I was a little bit nervous because I really had to ask myself, “Can I hit those notes every night?” I mean they are some really high notes! And then people kept saying to me, “Honey, you did Squeak every night, so yes, of course you can.” And the more I thought about the more I figured I could. I had asked if they thought maybe we should pre-record it, like a voice-over track but they kept saying, “No, you’re fine.” So every night I do it and those notes just explode out of me kind of the way that bird explodes on stage. Of course the kids get to laugh at that little moment, and adults crack up every night when the bird bursts open. I love that it keeps with the movie, because like you said that part is definitely right from the movie and I love having those little bits from the movie in here.

What is the most magical moment in the show for you?

Thank you for this question! The most magical moment in the show is that song “Who I’d Be.” It’s funny, because after I sing Dragon’s song, and I do the little Reprise of it, I stay in the pit. I’m living up there from the time I get up there and do my thing until the first act ends and we go into intermission. The music of that song is so beautiful. Just to see the flute, and then watch the flute get set down as somebody picks up a trumpet and then sets that down to pick up a clarinet. We have two horn players playing multiple instruments. Just to see that happening and then to feel the drums as this song is happening— it’s incredible. Now I sit right next to either Pam or Doug, depending on who’s conducting that night, and just watching their fingers hit the keyboard on top of all that. It’s so beautiful. If they ever offer you a chance to sit up in the pit and experience it up there, you tell them you absolutely will because it is so amazing. That song is so beautiful, and watching that magic from those people makes it that much more beautiful. It is my literal favorite part in the show. And the lyrics that Shrek sings are just so intense! If you listen to what he’s actually saying in that song— the message is just amazing. It’s magical and it’s beautiful and it’s really moving.

Do you, Ashley Johnson, have a ‘freak flag’ that you’re waving? Does Mama Bear?

I wouldn’t say that I have anything like a ‘freak flag’ to confess not the way the characters admit things like how Pinoccio is made of wood or anything like that. But I do love how they say, “What makes us special makes us strong.” I think that’s like a universal thing that everybody should relate to. Everybody is different, everyone has their quirky ways. Everyone has something that makes us who we are. Obviously we all have different fingerprints, well everyone also has something special about them and that is what makes them strong. You never know what people in the audience are going through, but that moment just reaches out to people. So when I sing that line, “What makes us special makes us strong” as Mama Bear, I truly mean it.

Mama Bear? I don’t know that she really has her own personal freak flag, not the way Papa Bear does. But let me just say, I have so much fun with Dean (Dean Davis plas Papa Bear) on stage. He is my Papa Bear! We have two different kids playing Baby Bear, and he and I share all these magical moments with these two kids, each kid has their own moment because they are very different kids! Dean is my freak flag. It’s different every night. We talk about different things every night, we come up with a different improv every single night. That’s how we keep it fresh and real for the lifetime of the show.

If you weren’t playing Dragon who would you want to be playing?

I have to say, I kind of admire Gingy. I think Gingy is super cool. They call him Gingerbread Boy even though he’s being voiced by a woman and he is just so super cool. I might also think that because I’m so blown away by the person voicing our Gingy. I’ve got to say that Heather (Heather Beck) just kills it! She nails it every single night! She’s so funny especially when she’s in the box. Watching her do what she does, it makes that role that much cooler and it makes me want to play that role. Of course I don’t think anybody but Heather could fit inside that box. And we tell her that every night. I say, Heather, nobody is going to fit in that box except you.”

We did audition at the same time for Dragon and Gingy. As soon as she read for Gingy, I was like “oh my gosh, Heather is perfect for this role.” I mean everyone was super talented but Heather just had that spark. You could tell it was meant to be. I adore Heather and everything she brings to that character. We sit together in the dressing room and we just have so much fun. Heather is super sweet and she believes in fairytales! It’s so great getting to work with her in this show.

(l to r) Papa Bear (Dean Davis), Mama Bear (Ashley Johnson),and Baby Bear (Samantha Yakaitis), Princess Fiona (Coby Kay Callahan), and the Morning Bird (voiced by Ashley Johnson), and Baby Bear (Samantha Yakaitis), and Mama Bear (Ashley Johnson). Photos by Kirstine Christiansen.
(l to r): Papa Bear (Dean Davis), Mama Bear (Ashley Johnson), and Baby Bear (Samantha Yakaitis), Princess Fiona (Coby Kay Callahan), and the Morning Bird (voiced by Ashley Johnson), and Baby Bear (Samantha Yakaitis), and Mama Bear (Ashley Johnson). Photos by Kirstine Christiansen.

Why come and see Shrek at Toby’s?

You know, I have a little boy at home, who has just turned four and he’s coming to see the show very soon. He hasn’t seen it yet but he knows all the songs. He is so excited to come and see it! He’s seen me do Hairspray and The Wiz, but he is more excited for this than either of those, I think. He knows these characters and he knows that I get to be the Dragon and it’s very exciting for him. So I think for children of all ages it’s going to be very exciting to get to see these characters that they’ve grown up with live on stage right before their eyes.

You should come see the show because it’s magical and it’s very uplifting. The fact that Shrek starts the show with this “I am who I am” and that he’s determined to make the best of being alone, sort of like making lemons with lemonade, but then he is able to end the show with love, friends, and happiness. That is such an empowering message. We get down on ourselves in our lives, over the simplest things too. People will wake up in the morning and see they have a pimple, or they’ll be depressed because they haven’t found their special someone in their lives yet. And we get all balled up in worrying that other people won’t be able to see through that to who we truly are as individuals. I feel like this show gives you hope for those situations. This show proves to you that something better is coming in the end. And you’re not going to get that in your average musical theatre show. You’re getting magic, you’re getting comedy, you’re getting a great story, and you’re getting hope. That’s why you need to see Shrek.

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Shrek plays through June 22, 2014 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call (301) 596-6161, or purchase them online.

LINKS

Click here to read the review for Shrek.

Click here to read ‘Story of My Life: The Freak Flag Chronicles; at Toby’s Shrek: Part 1: Heather Beck (Gingy).

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.