Audra McDonald and Will Swenson Line Utah Theater with Rows of New Seats

Audra-McDonald-and-Will-Swenson-line-Utah-theater-with-rows-of-new-seats-20010101A nonprofit theater in Utah with a tiny stage now boasts 305 new plush theater seats—thanks to two Broadway luminaries.

Tony-nominated actor Will Swenson, currently on Broadway as Tick in PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, has close ties to Hale Center Theater, the highly regarded regional theater company in northern Utah town of 88,328 residents.

Swenson’s brother, Cody, runs the Hale Center Theater Orem with his wife Anne as Managing Directors/Executive Producers. The brothers are grandsons to Ruth Hale, a prolific playwright and the founder of theater companies in California, Arizona and Utah that still bear her name. In their youth, Will and Cody performed there.

Actually, Will Swenson was in a musical at Hale Orem more recently—just after his star-making turn as Berger in HAIR. And he brought along a friend, Audra McDonald, currently causing a sensation as Bess in THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS.

The newly engaged couple met while they performed in 110 IN THE SHADE on Broadway. Swenson was looking for a way to help his brother’s theater troupe, and the pair came up with the idea of staging 110 IN THE SHADE at Hale Orem.

For a two-week benefit in June 2010, Swenson and the four-time Tony winner made “wonderful music,” to borrow a song title from 110 IN THE SHADE, at Hale Orem. McDonald re-created her role as Lizzie Curry and Swenson took on Starbuck. Barring cabaret-style events, 110 IN THE SHADE is the only show McDonald and Swenson have done together—and Hale Orem is the only venue that lucky theatergoers were able to see the two perform the lead roles.

"In the intimate setting of this 300-seat theater, her full-throttle, yet still lyrical, soprano and impeccable acting skills are amply displayed, and the effervescent actress holds nothing back to deliver a first-class star performance of a true store," wrote a reviwer for authoritative UtahTheaterBloggers.com. "If the HCTO ceiling weren’t so completely weighed down with lights and other equipment, she could have easily blown off the theater’s roof."

Following the benefit, theater refurbishments began, including the purchase of industry-standard, burgundy-upholstered, mahogany-framed seats.

“Thanks in part to the Audra McDonald and Will Swenson benefit engagement of 110 IN THE SHADE, we are finally able to replace the 40-year-old seats and renovate the interior of the theater.”

When the theater was built in 1990, “Grandma Hale,” as the Hale Orem’s determined founder is known, could not afford new theater seats and insisted that they all match, leaving purchasing small lots of seats out of the question. So she told family and friends, “I’m going to pray for some seats.” She soon received a phone call from Southern Utah church that was being refurbished with pews.

After a Facebook posting, a group of ardent Hale Orem fans showed up over several evenings to assist with the theater re-design that also includes new paint and new carpet.

“We gave the public the opportunity to purchase the old seats for $10 each. We sold over 100 seats that way and recycled the rest. Many of the purchased seats went to long time patrons who wanted to keep a ‘piece of the past.’ We had volunteers as young as 14 and as old as 80 help us with the tear-out,” Anne Swenson said.

“In fact, an actress named Aly Rutter, who first met the man who is now her husband after he saw her perform as Myrrhinne in our regional premiere in THE GIRL, THE GROUCH AND THE GOAT, came with her husband to collect the seat he sat in when he saw her perform in the show. But, they were two hours late and the seats were already in the dumpster. So, Cody Swenson and Aly’s new husband dug through the full dumpster to find the seat that still had the Avery label with the seat number printed on it.”

Hale Orem produces a variety of popular musicals, dramas and original shows at the in-the-round-seating theater with a 320-square-foot central stage. For more information on the Hale Center Theater Orem, visit http://www.haletheater.org/theater/.

Photo: Audra McDonald and Will Swenson in rehearsal for the Hale Center Theater Orem's benefit production of 110 IN THE SHADE. (Photo by Pete Widtfeldt)

Audra McDonald and Will Swenson Line Utah Theater with Rows of New Seats

Audra McDonald and Will Swenson Line Utah Theater with Rows of New SeatsAudra McDonald and Will Swenson Line Utah Theater with Rows of New Seats

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Blair Howell Blair Howell's career is in the professional publishing arena (for more years than he cares to remember), with a longstanding interest in theater. He found it to be great fun to live in New Canaan, Connecticut, with easy access to the Great White Way. But now, Blair lives in Salt Lake City (a long, not interesting story). The much-lamented move has allowed him to be more active in regional theater. He now covers theater and the arts for the Deseret News, Utah's oldest, continuously-published metro daily newspaper, and has written for various theater-related national magazines and websites.