The show must go on! Reimagined cruise acts blend entertainment with protocols

The show must go on! Reimagined cruise acts blend entertainment with protocols

Passengers on Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas, which launched service from Singapore on Dec. 1, have been treated to one of the line’s original productions, “Showgirl: Past. Present. Future,” in the ship’s Royal Theater.

Anyone who has seen the show before might notice one change in the dancers’ costumes: masks. Sparkly, sequined masks that worked so well with the rest of their outfits, it may have seemed that they’d always been there.

“Those aren’t just masks, they are customized masks,” said Nick Weir, senior vice president of entertainment for Royal Caribbean International. “It doesn’t take away from any of the beauty. The guests are really enjoying it, and they’re safe. It can be done.”

The Quantum, one of a handful of ships to have resumed service since March, showed that one of the most important aspects of a cruise vacation, the onboard entertainment, can exist in a Covid world. 

As cruise lines ready their fleets to return to the high seas this year, entertainment teams are working furiously behind the scenes to be able to offer passengers the same level and breadth of entertainment options that they have become accustomed to.

And despite new protocols, such as masks and social distancing, cruise entertainment directors say that not only will the shows go on, but that cruisers will enjoy them as much as they always have.

Norwegian Cruise Line puts on “Kinky Boots.”

“When we open a ship, it will have a full entertainment component,” said Richard Ambrose, senior vice president of entertainment and cruise programming at Norwegian Cruise Line. “All the shows will be back. Some will be delayed four to six weeks, but they’re coming.”

Those delays of the line’s Broadway-style productions, he said, may result from the need to get the cast and crew back onboard and rehearsed. 

Initially, every ship across the industry will have to limit venue capacity to provide more space between audience members, and it’s possible that more shows will be offered to accommodate everyone. But most changes will be ones that passengers don’t notice. 

“I’m aiming at making it look exactly like it looked before Covid,” Weir said. “The change will be in how it’s consumed. The distancing in the theater — making sure people have space and making sure we have the right offset of the audience from the performers on stage — all of that will affect you, but when the lights go out in the auditorium, you should be able to fully involve yourself in a beautiful show.”

Bill Prince, Holland America Line’s vice president of entertainment, said that “the idea is not to radically eliminate things that were there before. Our intent is, to the best of our ability and under [new] rules, operate basically as we did before. 

“That may affect the guests’ ability to dance on a crowded dance floor, but over time, we don’t anticipate that, when we get to the other side of this, the overall experience is radically different from when we went in.”

Entertainment directors across the brands agree that a lot of what changes won’t be evident to the audiences. Performers may stand farther away from the audience than they normally would, and the direction in which performers sing may change. Backstage, the production crew will likely be wearing masks, but onstage, it will vary, depending on where the ship is sailing.

“We can execute 99% of what we have to execute onstage,” Ambrose said. 

Holland America Line's Lincoln Center Stage is part of Music Walk, a section of select Holland America ships that features several different music venues.

Holland America Line’s Lincoln Center Stage is part of Music Walk, a section of select Holland America ships that features several different music venues.

Regarding music, Prince didn’t anticipate guests would see much that’s different, saying, “The band will be the band.”

There is of course, some entertainment programming that just doesn’t work in a socially distanced environment. 

Crystal Cruises vice president of entertainment and enrichment Keith Cox said the one thing the line will initially postpone is its very popular ambassador dance host program, which provides professional dance partners for guests.

However, the line’s ballroom dancers will still offer lessons both private and public.

“They will still be onboard and will still do the group dance classes, but with distancing in mind,” he said.

One big change cruisers will notice on all ships is that there won’t be much physical interaction between the audience and the cast.

“That is one of the things that we have to modify to keep guests and cast members and crew safe,” Ambrose said.

Weir said this will take some getting used to for artists who feed off audience participation.

“It creates some of the most hilarious content that good, strong, live performers can do, but not in the age of Covid,” he said. “There will be invisible barriers. An artist will not jump off the stage and interact with an audience member. But you won’t notice [its absence].” 

A barrier will likely prevent passengers from dancing too close to the Beatles cover band that headlines Norwegian's Cavern Club.

A barrier will likely prevent passengers from dancing too close to the Beatles cover band that headlines Norwegian’s Cavern Club.

In Norwegian’s Cavern Club, headlined by a Beatles cover band, Ambrose said there would likely be a barrier put up so that guests don’t dance too close to the musicians.

Cruise ship entertainment teams are already discussing ways to use space differently and get creative with outdoor programming. Ambrose said that the line is considering putting its comedians on deck.

“We have all this space outside, and our guests love being outside,” he said. “Imagine sailing in the Caribbean and watching a comedian outside. It’s perfect.”

Royal Caribbean is fortunate to already have the kind of venue any ship operator would want this year: the alfresco Aquatheater on its Oasis-class vessels, where a variety of shows take advantage of diving platforms and water elements. 

“It’s one of the things we did before Covid came along that just happened to be perfect for the situation,” Weir said. “You’re outside on a beautiful evening in the Caribbean, almost always with a trade wind moving the air across the deck. They’re perfectly set up for a healthy return to sailing.” 

On Crystal, the late-night piano bar scene may move from the Avenue Saloon, which Cox said is a popular venue but a relatively small one, to a larger space like Palm Court, where people sit farther apart. He is also eyeing more outdoor performances.

“Our outside area is on the radar for sure,” he said. “Pre-Covid-19 we put music out there — a DJ, a duo and quartets. It just depends on the itinerary and the weather. In a warm climate, it’s open season to go outside.” 

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