Lets not pretend that Jason Gross and Bill Gaus are your average theater-goers. They were far more prepared than most of us to enjoy the shows booked on Omaha stages in 2016. But their enthusiasm for live theater is a great starting point for looking back at the best the year brought to metro audiences.

Bill, a retired Bellevue music teacher, was well-armed with season tickets for the Blue Barn, Omaha Community Playhouse, SNAP! and Shelterbelt.  Bill and two women, another retired teacher and a mutual friend, call themselves “The Three Amigos” when they catch the shows together.

Jason, 44, a marketing support analyst for Marriott, buys the Performing Arts Broadway package.   But he planned to travel to Dallas to see Cabaret before learning that it was coming to Omaha. He wasn’t disappointed, finding Randy Harrison “fantastic as the emcee, right up there with the great ones—Alan Cumming and Joel Grey.”

Both men, and others whose takes we sought on the year’s offerings, reminded me of the expectations game we play when looking ahead to opening nights at our theaters.

At the extremes, we get too much hype and the play or musical can’t possibly live up to the claims, or we go dragging our feet with a ho-hum attitude and find ourselves blown away by a great performance.

To borrow two from my past, the burden of overblown superlatives couldn’t be carried by Book of Mormon at the Orpheum while August: Osage County at the Playhouse exceeded my highest expectations. In 2016, that happened most powerfully for me last May when I saw Heathers: the Musical at the Blue Barn. I wrote:

“I mean, seriously, a musical where a high school kid in a black trench coat starts killing off the snooty clique queen and the jock bullies to rid the world of evil-doers? How good can that be?”

Well, very good, better, even best.

It was certainly a favorite for Bill Gaus among the many he saw over the last 12 months. “It was done so well,” something he expected both as a Blue Barn booster and longtime music teacher.

He didn’t expect so much, given the more conventional familiarity of Sister Act, when he went to see that musical at the Playhouse.

But then Gaus “was surprised by the talent on the stage.” If expectations played a part when Amy Lane, the Creighton University drama professor and former Playhouse resident director, attended the musical, maybe it was more a matter of collegial good will.

She’s proud of the work by Creighton students on Tom Jones and others, but “One that stands out (elsewhere) to me was Sister Act. It was Kimberly Hickman’s first show as the new Artistic Director, and the energy and pure joy that exuded from the cast was so palpable and bodes well for the future” of the Playhouse.

Hickman’s arrival followed the December, 2015, dismissal of Hilary Adams after less than two years as Artistic Director, and the 2016 interim work of former associate director Susie Baer Collins. The Playhouse also made news late this year when the expected retirement of its top executive, Tim Schmad, led to the hiring of Katie Broman, when Schmad leaves on Jan. 31.

Broman, marketing and public relations specialist for Opera Omaha, held that position at the Playhouse after proving her skills as an intern from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

At age 32 she leads the nation’s largest community theater.

That change wasn’t the only shift in longtime leadership. The Circle Theater, a much smaller enterprise, was the creation of Doug and Laura Marr, performing his “Phil’s Diner” plays first in Benson, later in a church on Leavenworth, and often starring Laura in such plays as “Belle of Amherst.”

The Marrs stepped aside and Fran Sillau, who recently completed his MFA degree, took over as artistic director. A Circle cast has been performing A Charlie Brown Christmas at Urban Abbey in downtown Omaha. 

The Circle also combined with the Institute for Holocaust Education to present My Broken Doll, the story of childhood holocaust survivor Bea Karp which now tours schools.

Brigit St. Brigit Theatre company shares a problem with the Circle Theater: the lack of stable  performance location in recent years. After a long run at College of St. Mary, the Brigit’s classics and Irish plays have bounced around to churches, a downtown spot and last February to the restored 40th Street Theater on Hamilton.

Anyone who hasn’t experienced the dramatic quality that director Cathy M.W. Kurz provides should have seen the stellar cast there of Sive, doing Irish theater at its best. With Mary Beth Adams as a protective grandmother and Wes Clowers a manipulative matchmaker, all the players complemented their seasoned talents. But the most vivid memories of Sive must be of the angry tinker, Scott Working, pounding his walking stick loudly on the stage boards.

I was out of town when Brigit performed Inherit the Wind, but one of the company’s longtime supporters, former UNO library executive Robert Runyon, was enthusiastic about the company’s treatment of the famous duel between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial.

If expectations are high and they’re well-met by performances, some might find that all too predictable. It can be fun, on the other hand, to go reluctantly to something that promises to be  uncomfortable and then find yourself delighted. That was the case for me with Kwaidan, subtitled “Japanese Ghosts and Demons, An Immersive Journey,” at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Preferring the usual padded seat in the black box at Weber Fine Arts, I didn’t think I’d like being led around back corridors and dark stairwells in the bowels of the building. That turned out to be great fun and the perfect way to enjoy the spooky tales of Lafcadio Hearn.

I went to The Christians, leery of stereotypes often slapped on people of faith, and was surprised by how evenhanded the Blue Barn play was in portraying two sides of an argument about Heaven and Hell. Having lost track of it over the years, Frost/Nixon at the Barn surprised me with its convincingly sympathetic treatment of tricky Dick and met my expectation that Paul Boesing (Nixon) remains a brilliant actor. Perhaps my favorite moment in any 2016 performance came with his back to the audience when a certain set of his shoulders seemed so perfectly Nixonian.

I’m guessing the best play I missed in 2016 was To Kill a Mockingbird at the Playhouse. When an oft-seen show sells out and requires extra performances, that’s convincing. I’m also blaming my four months in Colorado for not catching the directing work of New Zealander Ryan Hartigan, the new director of UNO’s School of Art.

But I did catch up with the school’s theater coordinator D. Scott Glasser who praised a handful of great Blue Barn performances by Boesing, Aaron Zavich, Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek, Nils Haaland and Rosi Perez, and shared his enthusiasm for the Playhouse musical Caroline, or Change starring Echelle Childers in the title role.

We all get different rewards from the theater. When Denise Putnam, a longtime leader of Chanticleer Theater in Council Bluffs with her husband Bob, saw White Christmas at the Orpheum she loved it for the usual sentimental reasons, “loved the movie, loved the chance to see it live.” But, as a veteran character actor, she “put it on my wish list to play the housekeeper” and wondered if she and Bob couldn’t do their own B and D Production of the holiday classic before retiring from that pursuit.

I expected to love it again, too, and I did, but grumbled about going to Cinderella, especially when I saw all the little girls in princess costumes in the lobby. But the show thawed my cold heart.

Oh, by the way, speaking of expectations, recall Jason Gross’s anticipation of Cabaret. He took advantage of his subscriber’s discount to see it twice. He also liked Newsies with all its energetic tap dancing. Saw it three times. 

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