OREM — About a year ago, when I first wrote about singer/actress Audra McDonald coming to Utah to perform at Hale Center Theatre Orem, I likened her appearance to watching Michael Jordan, in his prime, play basketball in a high school gym.
Or seeing Elton John play piano in a local recital hall. Or having Martha Stewart cater the neighborhood block party.
It is a brush with extraordinary talent, in your own backyard.
And Hale's production of "110 In the Shade" is sure to be a magical theater moment that will have theatergoers buzzing for years to come.
The theater presents the musical with a two-week special engagement featuring McDonald, a four-time Tony Award winner and two-time Grammy winner, and Tony nominated Will Swenson. They'll be reprising their roles from the 2007 Broadway production with the Roundabout Theater Company.
Those two weeks will serve as a fundraiser for the run-down venue, a Utah County favorite, in desperate need of repairs and new chairs. The actors are donating their time and talents.
McDonald, most recently performed in "Twelfth Night" as part of Shakespeare in the Park in New York, and she just wrapped shooting for ABC's "Private Practice," in which she stars as Naomi.
Between shooting in Los Angeles, commuting home to New York, not to mention concert dates, McDonald carved out some time to make a pit stop in Salt Lake City as part of a one-day media blitz and to meet her future castmates.
Why would a performer at the top of her game go back to performing in community theater?
The connection: McDonald is dating Swenson, whose family runs Hale Center Theater Orem. The two met while doing "110 In the Shade."
"Back then, it was always about play dates," she said looking at a view of the Wasatch mountains from a suite at the Grand America last week. "We joke that the kids started dating before we did. It was play dates, play dates." McDonald is mom to a 9-year-old girl, and Swenson is the father of two boys — a trio McDonald lovingly refers to as her "wee posse of three."
Swenson is in London right now, reprising his Tony-nominated role of Berger in the revival of "Hair," but he will be making the trek to Orem, his hometown, with Audra and the kids.
"It's also a beautiful part of the country to be in, and it'll be nice to sort of relax, let the kids play with their cousins. So it's another excuse for a summer vacation."
But family ties aren't the only reason McDonald is happy to give back. "I grew up doing community theater," she said. "It was the Good Company Players: Roger Rocka's Musical. It was a dinner theater in the Tower District of Fresno," where McDonald grew up in California.
"When I was 9 years old, I performed with a troupe of kids who did a cabaret before the main musical."
McDonald's first role in the main show was in "The King and I." "I was a Siamese kid," she chuckled, "and I remember the kids didn't stay for the whole rehearsal until the final dress rehearsal. I had no idea the king dies, and I was so sad, I was crying."
She worked in the tiny theater, complete with "people eating their steaks," until she left for the Juilliard School in 1988.
"Hale Theater reminds me a lot of the theater I grew up in," she said, "except I'll get lonely without the dinner noise."
After a costume fitting and a standing ovation from the invited group of the theater community that gathered at the theater, McDonald sat in a chair on the tiny Hale stage and answered questions.
"There is something about having the audience right up on you that keeps you honest as a performer," she said of the small Hale venue. "If it's not good, they know it's not good. You just can't fake anything."
"I'm excited to revisit the role of Lizzie and discovering new things," she said.
McDonald talked about singing in the church choir — "my dad always said, 'But she's so loud' "; getting her Equity care (Actor's Union) — "I sang Whitney Houston's 'One Moment in Time' at an M&Ms/Mars event."
She also handed out bits of advice — "Just get used to being onstage. If there is a stage, get on it."
After calling the sound of the Tabernacle Choir "celestial," she came back with "you people — you made me so fat!" laughing about the amount of goodies inevitably waiting in her hotel room.
"I actually had the opportunity to meet (LDS Church) President (Gordon B.) Hinckley, and I was so nervous," she said. "But he was so warm and so kind, and it was just like talking to your grandpa. Plus he had such great skin!"
The rest of the "110" cast is made of local theater favorites, including Marvin Payne.
At the end of her long day, McDonald caught a flight to San Francisco to perform with the city's symphony the following night. Online reviews compared her performance to Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland — hailing her interpretation of song, the beautiful tone of her voice and her comfortable warm demeanor.
We're in for a treat, Utah, and it will be well worth the cost of admission.
A good deal
On Broadway, Audra McDonald typically will play to houses of 800 or more. In 2004, she sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the LDS Conference Center, which seats 22,000. And recently, she performed at the Rose Bowl for more than 40,000 people.
Hale Center Theater Orem seats 300.
And with the theater-in-the-round setting, patrons at most will be seven rows away from a star. The cost of seventh-row seats on Broadway can be $300 per ticket.
As the commercial says:
Tickets to see Audra McDonald perform in Orem: $99
Seeing a superstar in your own back yard: Priceless
If you go...
What: "110 In the Shade," special engagement fundraiser, starring Audra McDonald and Will Swenson
When: June 28-July 10
Where: Hale Center Theater Orem, 225 W. 400 North, Orem
How Much: $99-$149
Also: The production will continue until Aug. 7 with members of the local theater community.