While Celebrity Attractions' Larry Payton on Monday was describing his company's 2004-2005 theatrical schedule here as "one of the best we've ever had," I thought about how that statement can be perceived. I particularly thought about how it's taken when I tell readers that each year the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase has "the best line-up yet." "Yeah, we hear that every year," you might say. In Payton's case, and we'll discuss this farther down in this column, I would agree with him about the upcoming four-show slate. As for the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase, which begins Thursday, Jan. 22, at Juanita's Cantina Ballroom, you'll have to see for yourself. But here's some food for thought: Our 50 entries marked the most we've had for the contest. The number of entries from throughout the state is the most we've had. The diversity of music, from R&B to ska to hip-hop to country to modern, Evanescence-style rock, is the best we've seen. Eight judges gave 50 CDs a listen over one night and pared that to a workable 23, with a makeshift top 16 chosen. After a second listen the next day of those 23, a few acts were shifted around, giving us 16 semifinalists and an order of alternates, all of whom would have easily made the semifinal line-up in years past. Now, here's where the good and bad come in. In a job that's usually all good, my least favorite role is to tell Showcase entries that they didn't make the field to play Juanita's. I hope the announcement here and on co-sponsor KMJX-FM, Magic 105, of who did make it gets the message out. Some just want to hear it from my lips. "Please enter again next year," I told one entry. "Next year we're planning on already having a recording contract," he responded nicely. Good luck on that, I offered. Next, we have to shuffle 16 acts around until we can find the right day for their schedules, as well as the right day for all the other acts so we have a good, flowing show. It's been suggested to me by one armchair showcase organizer, "Why don't you tell them they are playing on this or that date and if they don't like it, tough?" Folks who know me know that's not how I operate. It's fairness for all, and we accommodate nearly every request. Remember, we've got some acts driving in three hours to play (and three hours home). This year, we went more than a week unable to reach one of the 16 semifinalists. Under the gun, we moved to the first alternate. Of course, that's when we finally heard from the band we couldn't reach. That band being so good on its audition tape, and having never seen them on a club line-up here, we felt it unfair to leave them out. So, this year, a first: We're going with 17 bands, and the Feb. 5 semifinal will have an incredibly diverse show: from acoustic rock to bluegrass to jam to R&B to hip-hop. The question everybody then asks: How do you pick the winning band from such a diverse line-up? Answer: Great songs don't lie, no matter the genre. That will ultimately decide the Showcase winner - it always has - but showmanship, musicianship, originality and crowd response also figure to our wide-ranging judging panel. The winner of the Showcase will end up with plenty of prizes - including a designed website, recording time, music equipment, food from Trio's and a spot on the Riverfest line-up. Fans can win door prizes, from Juanita's and Barbara Graves gift certificates to CDs and such from Magic 105 and more. We're going to have fun, plus hear some great music. That's the way I've seen the Times Showcase from its start: not necessarily a competition but rather a chance for music fans around the area to hear an original group or a style of music they normally wouldn't encounter. And at $5 to get in, that's a bargain. I predict that after the finals, longtime Showcase fans will be agreeing with me and saying, "This was the best ever." Now, for Celebrity Attractions' line-up next year. It seems from this view the best they've brought in the five years I've been at Arkansas Times. "Mama Mia," the musical created by the songwriters from Abba with 22 of their hits, has been a Broadway and national touring phenomenon, and it finally makes it to Little Rock for six days in March 2005. That show and the Frank Gorshin vehicle "Say Goodnight, Gracie," about George Burns, were two shows we were unable to get tickets for last year in a trip to New York. "Say Goodnight, Gracie" will open the 2004-2005 season in October. Gorshin, probably best known as the Riddler from the "Batman" TV show but also a fabulous impressionist, is making a limited tour and will appear here. "42nd Street," the revival of which won a Tony Award, and the ubiquitous "Riverdance" will also appear in 2005. Both should draw sellout crowds, as "Grease" managed to do for a three-day run earlier this week.