Kevin Riordan: Pitman actress takes a grittier role

Posted: July 10, 2013

Pitman knows Madeline Brewer as a golden girl with a silvery soprano.

The cozy, conservative, church-steepled Gloucester County community has applauded her in upbeat local productions like Bye Bye Birdie and cheered her victory in the Miss Pitman pageant of 2010.

Some folks even drove up to Connecticut last summer to see Brewer sing the title role in Liberty, a musical about the statue that inspired the world.

But little "Maddie" Brewer as a jailbird with a girlfriend, a neck tattoo, and a heroin habit?

That's her character in Orange is the New Black, a much buzzed-about new prison drama debuting Thursday on Netflix. It's Brewer's on-screen debut.

"I play Tricia Miller, who's a bad-[expletive for posterior] chick," she says by phone from New York. "Pardon my French."

The affable actress, 21, works as a hostess at an Upper West Side cafe when not auditioning for stage and screen roles.

"I think they cast me because Tricia is very tough, but has a vulnerability to her," Brewer says. "I was the youngest actress on the set, and I'm very very blessed. And very lucky."

I haven't seen a preview, but the sleek online trailer for Orange offers plenty of f-bombs, a bevy of bad girls, and an abundance of the edginess demanded by connoisseurs of high-style TV.

The show already has received strong reviews and arrives with a cargo of artistic cred: The creator is Jenji Kohan, of Weeds fame, and the story is based on Piper Kerman's memoir. The cast includes Taylor Schilling as Piper and other respected performers such as Jason Biggs, Kate Mulgrew, and Natasha Lyonne.

"Everyone was really fantastic to work with," says Brewer, who graduated from New York's AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in 2012. "Making the show was an amazing experience."

A third-generation borough resident, Brewer began taking music lessons and acting in local productions before she was 10.

Her actor-musician father, Mark, teaches history at middle school in Williamstown, and her mother, Laurie, is chief of staff in the New Jersey Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly.

"I could tell she had talent when she was 8 and in A Christmas Carol,' " Mark Brewer, 58, recalls. "She was dynamic, magnetic."

Jennifer Counsellor, who directs the theater program at Pitman High, and Sylvia Richardson, a retired music teacher, also recognized Brewer's abilities early on.

"Every time she was on stage, I would stop in my tracks," Counsellor says. "As a performer, she just demanded attention."

While local audiences are a bit more conservative than those in, say, Manhattan, Counsellor says Orange won't prove too much for Pitman.

"It's a traditional town, but I think broad-minded enough to accept it," agrees Richardson, 77. "Of course I'm going to watch."

Brewer's dad acknowledges that he is "not exactly excited about the fact this a pretty raw show."

But he adds: "As long as Madeline doesn't compromise herself or her own values, I'm OK with it."

Says Laurie Brewer: "She's a nice girl, and she loves her family, and I think that comes across to people who know her.

"This is a role that's different from who she is," she adds. "I'm not apprehensive about it, I'm very excited about it. I'm happy she's part of something I expect will be very successful."

Her daughter hasn't let any hype go to her head.

"I'm a total Pitman kid," she says. "I really love my hometown. I carry that with me."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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