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Orem theater nabs Tony Award winner

Audra McDonald, four-time Tony Award-winning actress and current star on the ABC series "Private Practice," is coming to Utah.

That, in and of itself, isn't unusual.

But this time, it's a little bit different.

Audra McDonald is coming to perform, not with the Utah Symphony, not with the Utah Opera and not with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir like she did in 2004.

No. This time Audra McDonald will be donning her costume and microphone, and gracing the stage of … Hale Center Theater Orem.

Yes, you read that correctly. That Audra McDonald and that HCTO. She'll be in town for two weeks, starring in their production of "110 in the Shade," part of its 2010 season.

This is something similar to watching Michael Jordan, in his prime, play in a high school gym; or seeing Elton John perform at the local piano recital.

Imagine seeing a star of her caliber in a venue, so intimate, it seats 300, and the farthest row in the theater-in-the-round setting is the seventh row. Seven rows from a Broadway star.

As McDonald left rehearsals for her upcoming project, The Public Theater's production of "Twelfth Night," for Shakespeare in the park, she talked on speaker phone about her upcoming trip to Utah. Needless to say, the first question asked, was why. Why would a four-time Tony Awards winning star want to do community theater?

"I grew up doing community theater, it's very dear to my heart. I wouldn't be where I am today without community theater."

"We're so happy, we're just thrilled," said Anne Swenson with HCTO, "for someone of her performing stature and talent to be here is great. But she's really just a wonderful person, too."

McDonald will be reprising the role of Lizzie Curry, a role she played on Broadway in 2007. That's where she met Utahn Will Swenson, currently starring on Broadway in "Hair" and nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as Berger. He will be joining her for the two-week limited engagement. "I got to know Will in '110' and I got to know his family because they came to visit a lot," she said.

Will Swenson is part of the Hale family, and his brother, Cody, and Cody's wife, Anne, run HCTO.

"I got talking with Will and we just said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could figure out a way to help support Cody's theater?' " McDonald said, "then we thought maybe we could sneak out, do a limited run and have some fun."

The sneaking part might be the challenge, McDonald is hardly someone who blends into the woodwork.

"There has never been one diva demand," said Swenson, laughing. "The biggest thing is that she wants to go to lunch with us."

Swenson continued: "She has come out and spent time with the family and that's been fantastic."

"I love Will's family so much," McDonald said. "Once I got to know about their organization, it reminded me so much about the theater I grew up in in California. So it will feel like going back to my roots in a way."

HCTO plans on using McDonald and Swenson's limited engagement as a fundraiser for the theater. "Audra and Will are generously donating their talents," Swenson explained. "Ticket prices will be in the range of $80-$100, and if people would like to supplement that, that would be fantastic. These are hard economic times."

The theater is old, she noted. "We need a new roof. I'd like to fix the seats, replace the springs and re-upholster. There's all sorts of repairs in the building," Swenson said, adding that at a past performance they had to hang buckets from the roof to catch dripping water.

McDonald has never seen the theater but isn't at all worried.

"I've performed in everything from pubs to Carnegie Hall," she said. "Theater can happen anywhere, even the subways."

HCTO will cast the show and continue to run the regular six-week engagement after the stars head back to New York. "We'll probably hand-pick a cast," Swenson said, "we need to work fast and we'll need people who are comfortable with that environment.

"Some of my creative staff is a little nervous," Swenson laughed. "My hair and makeup team are wondering what they're gonna do, but that's only because they haven't met her yet. Once you meet her, you can't be nervous."

"There is talent everywhere," McDonald said of her future supporting cast, "just because someone lives in New York doesn't mean they're more talented than someone living in Orem. I'm excited to see the talent out there."

McDonald will make the trek with her young daughter, and they're both looking forward to the working vacation. "For me, every time I go to Utah, my jaw drops to the floor at the actual physical geographical beauty. It's just a magnificent state."

"110 in the Shade" opens on June 28 and runs through Aug. 7. Tickets for the special two-week limited engagement will be going on sale in January, through the theater's Web site and over the phone.

"I'm just really looking forward to it, it will be fun for me," McDonald added. "Will and I had so much fun playing opposite each other last time, I'm looking forward to revisiting Lizzie, and anytime I can be on stage, I'm happy."

HCTO's 2010 season

"April Ann," Dec. 3 -Feb. 13

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," Feb.25-April 24

"To Kill a Mockingbird," May 6 - June 19

"110 in the Shade," June 28-Aug. 7

"The Girl, the Grouch and the Goat," Aug. 19-Oct. 12

"The Scarlet Pimpernel," Oct. 14-Nov. 27

"A Christmas Carol," Dec. 2-Dec. 23

E-mail: ehansen@desnews.com