Audra McDonald brings stardust to Hale

Published: Sunday, May 2 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

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.

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