Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)
The bigger the ship, the bigger the show; but the tired old song-and-dance routines are now being replaced by well-known Broadway musicals.
Cruise lines with large resort ships have upped the ante lately, competing to attract attention by staging super-lavish, high-tech productions that are licensed versions of Broadway shows.
Large-scale shows: what’s playing
Chicago (Allure of the Seas)
Hairspray (Oasis of the Seas)
Legally Blonde (Norwegian Getaway)
Mamma Mia (Quantum of the Seas)
Saturday Night Fever (Liberty of the Seas)
Believe (Disney Dream)
Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular (Disney Fantasy)
These big theater shows, with impressively large casts (except for the Blue Man Group shows), are abridged versions specially adapted to the cruise ships’ showroom stage, typically by trimming and fine-tuning them, so that the performance fits in with the ship’s operational schedule - not to mention dinner.
Also, Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas have an outdoor ‘AquaTheater’ (with a part-watery stage), where aquabatics and comedy provide a nighttime entertainment spectacular.
Aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic, the Blue Man Group put on a show combining mime and multi-sensory effects that is always a hit with families, as are Cirque Dreams & Jungle Dinner (Norwegian Breakaway), and The Illusionarium magic show (Norwegian Getaway), both of which are part of a supper club.
Disney Cruise Line also has other superb stage shows taken from the vast choices available in its stable, plus Believe, developed specifically for Disney Dream. There’s a proven family favorite, Toy Story - The Musical. Disney has separate entertainment shows for adults, too. Winningly, children are invited to meet and greet Disney characters in designated places and during special surprise appearances aboard its four ships.
The good news is you don’t pay extra to see the show; there are few bad seats in the house; you don’t have to find a parking place; you don’t even have to carry tickets, or find a restaurant to eat in before or after the show. And there’s always a handy bar nearby.
Old-style cabaret aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Millennium.
Celebrity Cruises/Steve Beaudet
Colorful Las Vegas-style production shows have evolved enormously aboard the large resort ships, as have the stages, technical equipment, and facilities. Although they still can’t match the budgets of Las Vegas, they can certainly beat many shore-side venues. Most shipboard production shows have two things in common: no audience contact (well, almost none), and intense volume. With few exceptions, the equation ‘volume = ambience’ is thoroughly entrenched in the minds of the young, musically challenged audiovisual technicians.
With few exceptions, there’s little elegance in most production shows, and all are too long. The after-dinner attention span of most cruise passengers - who are generally not unlike a television studio audience - is about 35 minutes. Most production shows run for about 45 to 50 minutes.
Most production show ‘dancing’ today consists of stepping in place, while pre-recorded backing tracks are often synthetic and grossly imbalanced. Synthetic string sections, for example, are acceptable only to those with little sense of musicality.
Some cruise lines have a live showband that backs the large-scale production shows. This band plays along with a pre-recorded backing track to create an ‘enhanced’ or larger sound. Some companies, such as Disney Cruise Line, use only a prerecorded track. This has little ‘feel’ to it, unlike a live showband that can generate empathy and variation - as well as create work for musicians. Although live music may contain minor imperfections (which some might regard as ‘character’), most passengers would prefer it to canned music.
Many passengers, despite having paid comparatively little for their cruise, expect to see top-notch entertainment, headline cabaret artists, the world’s most popular singers, and the most dazzling shows with slick special effects, just as one would find in the best venues in Las Vegas, London, or Paris. There are many reasons why the reality is different. Cruise line brochures tend to over-hype entertainment. International star acts invariably have an entourage that accompanies them to any venue: their personal manager, their musical director (often a pianist or conductor), a rhythm section with bass player and drummer, and even their hairdresser.
On land, one-night shows are possible, but with a ship, an artist cannot always disembark after just one night, especially when it involves moving equipment, costumes, stage props, and baggage. This makes the deal logistically and financially unattractive for all but the very largest ships on fixed itineraries, where a marquee-name act might be a marketing plus.
For their part, most entertainers don’t like to be away from their ‘home base’ for long periods, as they rely on reliable phone and Internet access for managing their careers. Nor do they like the long contracts that most ships must offer in order to amortize the high costs.
Allure of the Seas mounts an abridged version of Chicago.
Royal Caribbean International
Entertaining but predictable
So many acts from one cruise ship to the next are interchangeable with each other. Ever wonder why? It relates to the limited appeal of a cruise ship gig. Entertainers aboard ships have to live with their audiences for several days and perhaps weeks - something unheard of on land - as well as work on stages aboard older ships that weren’t designed for live performances.
As for the ‘sameness’ of so many shows, entertainment aboard large resort ships is market-driven. In other words, it is directed toward that segment of the industry that marketing departments are specifically targeting. This is predominantly a family audience, so the fare must appeal to a broad age range. That partly accounts for the frequency of formulaic Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic routines and rope climbing.
A cruise line with several ships will normally employ an entertainment director and several assistants, and most cruise lines use entertainment agencies that specialize in entertainment for cruise ships. As a result, regular passengers are likely to see the same acts time after time on various ships.
Mistakes do happen. It is no use, for example, booking a juggler who needs a floor-to-ceiling height of 12ft (3.6m) but finds that the ship has a showlounge with a height of just 7ft (2m) - although I did overhear one cruise director ask if the act ‘couldn’t juggle sideways’; or an acrobatic knife-throwing act (in a moving ship?); or a concert pianist when the ship only has an upright honky-tonk piano; or a singer who sings only in English when the passengers are German-speaking.
Movies under the stars aboard Princess Cruises’ Grand-class ship.
Trying to please everyone
The toughest audience is one of mixed nationalities (each of whom will expect entertainers to cater exclusively to their particular linguistic group). Given that cruise lines are now marketing to more international audiences in order to fill ever-larger ships, the problem of finding the right entertainment is far more acute - which is why Queen Mary 2 is to be envied for the visual appeal of its Illuminations Planetarium.
The ‘luxury’ cruise lines (typically those operating small ships) offer more classical music, even some light opera, and more guest lecturers and top authors than the seven-day package cruises heading for the sun.
These performers, and ship entertainers generally, need to enjoy socializing. Successful shipboard acts tend to be good mixers, are presentable when in public, do not do drugs or take excess alcohol, are not late for rehearsals, and must cooperate with the cruise director.
Part of the entertainment experience aboard large resort ships is the glamorous ‘production show,’ the kind of show you would expect to see in any good Las Vegas show palace - think flesh and feathers - with male and female lead singers and Madonna or Marilyn Monroe look-alike dancers, a production manager, lavish backdrops, extravagant sets, grand lighting, special effects, and stunning custom-designed costumes. Unfortunately, most cruise line executives, who know little or nothing about entertainment, still favor plumes and huge feather boas paraded by showgirls who step, but don’t dance. Some cruise ships have coarse shows, and topless performances can be found aboard the ships of Star Cruises/Genting Hong Kong.
Book back-to-back seven-day cruises (on alternating eastern and western Caribbean itineraries, for example), and you’ll probably find the same two or three production shows and the same acts on the second week of your cruise. The way to avoid seeing everything twice is to pace yourself.
The cost of staging a show
Staging a lavish 50-minute production show can easily cost between $500,000 and $1 million, plus performers’ pay, costume cleaning and repair, royalties, and so on. To justify that cost, shows must remain aboard for 18 to 24 months.
Some smaller operators see entertainment as an area for cost-cutting, so you could find yourself entertained by low-budget singers and bands.
Most ships organize acts that, while not nationally known ‘names,’ can provide two or three different shows during a seven-day cruise. These will be singers, illusionists, puppeteers, reality TV show wannabes, hypnotists, and even circus acts, with wide age-range appeal. Also, comedians who perform ‘clean’ material can find employment year-round on the cruise ship circuit. These popular comics enjoy good accommodation, are mini-stars while on board, and may go from ship to ship on a standard rotation every few days. There are raunchy, late-night ‘adults only’ comedy acts in some of the ships with younger audiences, but few have enough material for several shows. In general, the larger a ship, the broader the entertainment program will be.
Movies on deck
Showing movies on the open deck has been part of the cruise scene since the 1970s, when they were often classic black-and-white films shown at midnight. In those days, the screens were small, roll-down affairs, and the projectors were set up on makeshift pedestals. The result was often images that vibrated, and sound that quivered.
Speed forward into the 21st century. Many large resort ships now have huge outdoor poolside LED movie screens 300 sq ft (approximately 28 sq m) that cost around $1 million each. The screens are complemented by 50,000- to 80,000-watt sound systems for a complete ‘surround the deck’ experience.
Princess Cruises started the trend in 2004 aboard Grand Princess with its ‘Movies Under the Stars’ program, but now all companies with large resort ships have them. The experience is reminiscent of the old drive-in movies, the difference being that cruise lines often supply blankets and even popcorn free of charge.
Movies are shown throughout the day and evening. Aboard the family-friendly ships, they may include special films for junior cruisers. Big sports events such as the Super Bowl or World Cup soccer are also presented.
Smaller cruise ships, expedition cruise ships, and sail-cruise ships may have little or no entertainment. Aboard those ships, after-dinner conversation, reading, and relaxation become the entertainment of choice.
Illuminations Planetarium, Queen Mary 2.
You can keep up with entertainment on offer by reading the daily program - a mini-newspaper that is delivered to your suite/cabin each night when your bed is turned down. It describes the next evening’s shows and lists performance times. Any changes - due to bad weather, for example - are announced over the PA system.
Who’s who in shipboard entertainment
Although production companies differ in their approach, the following gives some idea of the various people involved behind the scenes.
Executive producer. Transfers the show’s concept from design to reality. First, the brief from the cruise line’s director of entertainment might be for a new production show (the average being two major shows per seven-day cruise). After deciding on an initial concept, they then call in the choreographer, vocal coach, and musical arranger.
Choreographer. Responsible for auditioning the dancers and for creating, selecting, and teaching the routines.
Musical director. Coordinates all musical scores and arrangements; trains the singers in voice and microphone techniques, projection, accenting, phrasing, memory, and general presentation; and oversees session singers and musicians for the recording sessions.
Musical arranger. After the music has been selected, the musical arrangements must be made. This is a time-consuming task. Just one song can cost more than $2,000 for a single arrangement for a 12-piece orchestra.
Costume designer. Provides creative original designs for a minimum of seven costume changes in one show lasting 45 minutes. The costumes must also be practical, as they will be used repeatedly.
Costume maker. Buys all materials, and must be able to produce all required costumes in time for a show.
Graphic designer. Provides all the set designs, whether they are physical two- or three-dimensional sets for the stage, or photographic images created on slide film, video, laser disk, or other electronic media.
Lighting designer. Creates lighting patterns and effects for a production show. Sequences and action on stage must be carefully lit to the best advantage. The completed lighting plot is computerized.
Bands/musicians. Before the big production shows and artists can be booked, bands and musicians must be hired, often for long contracts. Naturally, live musicians are favored for a ship’s showband, as they are excellent music readers (necessary for all visiting cabaret artists and for big production shows). Big bands are often placed in some of the larger ships for special sailings, or for world cruises, on which ballroom dancing plays a large part. Most musicians work to contracts of about six months.