If you look back at two types of triumphs in 2010, you could be arguing well into 2011 about the age-old theater question: can the most significant and challenging plays draw big crowds? In the earlier days of the 85-year history of the Omaha Community Playhouse, when they were doing O’Neill and Shaw with regularity, some would insist that the most intellectually demanding drama drew better than lighter fare. While occasionally true, that claim didn’t stand up well in the long run at the OCP. So how did that work this year? You could make the case at the Playhouse that the most critically honored musical and drama, Fiddler on the Roof and Death of a Salesman , also drew the largest audiences. But some high-quality and highly serious theater by SkullDuggery didn’t keep it from losing a lease and suffering financially. That’s not the best case, of course, given the instability of Andrew McGreevy’s ambitious operation. And sold-out houses aren’t that common for the brilliant August Wilson plays at the John Beasley Theater or for Shaw and Shakespeare at the Brigit Saint Brigit or for some cutting edge drama at the Blue Barn. An exception: their recent Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol , with a stellar title turn by Nils Haaland. A great script and solid cast packed them in for fun that wasn’t fluffy. The rule: Rabbit Hole won a best drama award but didn’t fill Barn seats. More important, the Barn and Brigit jointly announced last summer that they’d fared well enough with their lofty missions to survive the recession and return to separate locations in the fall of 2011 after sharing the Old Market space. My favorite plays most years aren’t everyone’s favorites if measured by attendance. I’ve cheered the likes of Jitney at the Beasley or Julius Caesar at Brigit or SkullDuggery’s recent The Vertical Hour with small audiences. That’s not to pretend that both middle-brow and lowbrow stuff doesn’t have a prominent place in the pleasure we get from an evening of theater. Two of my favorites mid and low: The Philadelphia Story at the Bellevue Little Theater and a hilarious Valley of the Dolls parody by SNAP! Productions. At the BLT, the best-attended show was Get Back: Super Hits of the ’70s , directed by Bridget Robbins and produced by Bette Swanson, with Mame doing well in September. At Chanticleer, back-to-back musicals last spring, Jesus Christ Superstar and Footloose , drew good-sized crowds to the east side of Council Bluffs. And Superstar featured some of this writer’s favorite supporting performances by Dwayne Moore, John Morrissey and Joe Blackstad, who won a Theater Arts Guild award as King Herod. Denise Putnam was a supporting standout in Footloose. The Broadway Across America series by Omaha Performing Arts offers another test for quality vs. crowds. For me, by far the most substantial and satisfying musical was The Color Purple , but it was outsold by the more familiar Beauty and the Beast . I’m guilty as anyone when it comes to preferring the familiar — never tire of Chicago . But when you catch a play a week and often two or even three, you lean toward the new and different. Sometimes “different” is a matter of degree. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing All Shook Up again after a so-so production toured at the Orpheum, but director Carl Beck made the Elvis songs far more appealing at the Playhouse. It gave me a new appreciation for comedic star Theresa Sindelar when she sang “Heartbreak Hotel.” Drawing crowds isn’t the top priority for university theaters, of course, but Creighton has a crowd-pleaser in Dan Tracy, who went from starring in the previous season’s West Side Story to the title role in the Floyd Collins musical and Jesus in Godspell . The University of Nebraska at Omaha challenged playgoers with a puzzling Eurydice (a switch on the old Orpheus story), and entertained them with Noises Off . The two schools traded drama faculty at the top of the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, with Creighton’s Alan Klem replacing UNO’s Cindy Melby Phaneuf. And 2011, as every year must, saw losses to the theater community, including the wonderful actress Phyllis Doughman and benefactor Howard Drew. He didn’t just give a generous gift for a stage that bears his name, he was also a good friend who often drove senior volunteer Dee Owen to her Playhouse duties.

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