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OPINION | TED TALLEY: Expectations of Northwest Arkansas’ cultural, entertainment offerings keep getting higher

NW Arkansas expectations just keeping getting higher by Ted Talley | August 11, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

This Saturday afternoon I'll be front row center at the Walton Arts Center for "My Fair Lady," its 2022-23 Broadway season launch. It will be the third time I've seen a live performance of the American theater classic.

The first time I was 9. In December 1959 at the old Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, I attended with my parents and older sister. All I remember is the Freddy scene, "On the Street Where You Live."

It's odd how some things stick in your mind in full detail while others scatter like broken bits of glass and tile loosened from the plaster of an old vacation Bible school craft project.

In that same worn-out New Orleans venue, I recall clearly a Bette Midler concert in the 1970s before she became a superstar. An up-and-coming Barry Manilow opened for her with a new song he was trying out: "Mandy."

Yet, friends and I drove in from the country to see a touring company, on the same stage in the same decade, perform "Hair," which I've mostly forgotten. What I recall specifically was the brief barrier-breaking nude scene that was actually sort of ho-hum except for the middle-aged woman in front of us strenuously craning her neck to be sure she took it all in. That alone was worth the ticket price and the bridge toll across Lake Pontchartrain.

The "My Fair Lady" touring show currently in Fayetteville promises to be "Thrilling, glorious and better than it ever was," per the arts center website.

Even so, I doubt my third time around Saturday will out-do my second experience in 2001 with the famous Lerner and Loewe musical: a production at a relatively small but noted Missouri engineering university -- UM-Rolla, it was called then -- my daughter Laura attended.

With a clear-as-a-bell voice, a mastery of the two before and after British accents and traces of her mother's beauty, Laura as Eliza Doolittle blew the house away.

The opening Covent Garden flower market scene was craftily staged. The extras and minor characters were there, but where was Laura as the orchestra began the first song? Suddenly, emerging from the crowd, Laura lifted her head previously hidden by Eliza's signature flower-covered straw hat.

She gazed up, caught her spotlight, opened her mouth and captured us all, opening the show with "Wouldn't It Be Loverly." From the front row, my jaw dropped during the first verse. By second verse tears were gently streaming down my cheeks. Sure, I was the proud dad, but she was also that good. It remains the most memorable theater experience of my life. From my perspective, the troubadours in Fayetteville will have a high bar to clear this weekend.

The entire college production was excellent, equivalent or better than that assumed of larger institutions noted for the arts. But UM-Rolla, with an enrollment of barely 6,000 in a town of similar population, rolled out a first-class production.

My wife Linda and I knew Laura could sing. But master two British accents as well? The university has a nuclear reactor, an observatory with a 16-inch telescope and, apparently, excellent acting and dialog coaches. Laura never dropped out of character, whether speaking Cockney or the King's English.

Experiences like this in Rolla and other out-of-the way places -- finding art, food, music and other forms of culture in the hinterlands -- have made moments to relish in my life so much more than encountering culture and entertainment where expected, even demanded, of famous metropolises.

Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas used to fall under the former category, but we are increasingly the latter. Those serendipitous jewels of discovery in these former backwoods become rarer each passing month. Our fantastic art museum is 11 years old. Southern Living and The New York Times have unearthed us, exposed us, multiple times. The "gee whiz" honeymoon is over and we are now expected to be dazzling and avant. Once all the mountain cycling trails and art gallery expansions are complete and our bellies are bistro-sated, when will ground be piled up for artificial ski slopes? I'm not complaining. But like Kierkegaard observing life in his Copenhagen "people bath," I'm simply observing from my spa tub minutes north of Walton's Five and Dime.

When the curtain rises Saturday on Dickson Street I'll be searching for Eliza hidden in the crowd scene among the flowers hoping it is staged as how my daughter emerged. If "My Fair Lady" opens that way under Mount Sequoyah, then maybe I'll be as captivated as I was two decades ago near hilly Mark Twain National Forest. And wouldn't that be loverly?

Print Headline: Pronounced memories


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