The bar keeps getting raised on an almost-nightly basis when it comes to onboard evening entertainment. The oft-quoted line in the 1946 Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun" most definitely applies to cruise lines and their entertainment options these days: "Anything you can do, I can do better."
Or bigger. Or brighter. Cruise lines have upped their entertainment budgets in order to woo repeat cruisers and first-timers alike, and the extra attention shows. There's been a huge increase on the technology front, with more LED screens, fancy special effects and elaborate production elements used in onboard performances. They're bringing in bigger-name acts -- ones you've actually heard of -- to replace ho-hum tribute shows and dancers in feathered headdresses. And, as ships continue to grow in size, the sheer number of onboard options each evening is also growing to spread passengers throughout the ship -- from deck parties to aqua-acrobatic shows and movies under the stars.
However, it's not just the big ships getting into the act. Smaller ships often opt for quality over quantity, bringing in well-known performers, acts or speakers to entertain their passengers in more intimate settings.
Whether it's a new multimillion-dollar Broadway-style production show, soaring acrobatics, singing waiters or Lady Gaga lookalikes, cruise lines are making sure you never go to bed early for want of something fun and engaging to do in the evening. The following trends will whet your appetite for after-hours fun on your next sailing.
Land-Based Shows and Groups Hit the High Seas: Step aside, generic musical revues and entertainers known only on the cruise ship circuit. Cruise lines are luring many beloved shows and groups to the high seas for brand-name entertainment onboard.
Norwegian Epic, which launched in mid-2010, has embraced this trend as part of its overall focus on raising the onboard entertainment bar. The two biggest names onboard are Blue Man Group, those playful -- and often messy -- performers who experiment with multimedia while painted blue, and The Second City Comedy Troupe, the famous Chicago-based group that launched the careers of many Saturday Night Live comedians. Other land-based acts include the Howl at the Moon Dueling Pianos Show and Legends in Concert celebrity impersonator shows.
Royal Caribbean, in turn, has focused on bringing shortened versions (averaging 90 minutes) of well-known Broadway musicals to its onboard stages. Working with the production teams that created the shows for Broadway, Oasis of the Seas started the Broadway-caliber trend with "Hairspray," followed by "Chicago" on Allure of the Seas and "Saturday Night Fever" on Liberty of the Seas.
The Queen Elizabeth Theatre Company onboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth is the only resident theater company at sea. With more than two dozen singers, dancers, actors and musicians, it performs known plays and musicals, just like a London-based theater company would. The troupe is currently performing the hit show, "Slice of Saturday Night," a nostalgic look at 1960's music that has been staged in London and has toured extensively in the United Kingdom and the United States. The company also presents an abridged Neil Simon triple bill, featuring three scenes -- one each from some of the playwright's most loved shows.
Cunard's Queen Mary 2 also has graduates and staff of one of the most famous acting schools -- London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) -- onboard and presents specially edited versions of renowned plays and adaptations of great literary classics on transatlantic crossings. Other unique presentations have included "A Bedtime Story," where one of the actors sits in an armchair, surrounded by a small group of guests (nursing their nightcaps), and reads a bedtime story. There's also Jazz Poetry, where actors perform rhythmic, jazz and rap poetry accompanied by a trio of musicians.
Entertainment Heads Beyond the Main Theaters: Evening shows used to be confined to the ship's main theater and occasionally a secondary lounge -- unless you count Baked Alaska parades in the dining room as a form of evening entertainment. These days, you can find entertainment options throughout the ship ... including in some unlikely places.
Royal Caribbean is bringing onboard entertainment to new heights (possibly literally) while proving that you don't need a typical stage to have a show. Its Voyager-, Oasis-, and Freedom-class ships are the only vessels afloat with ice-skating rinks, where pro skaters amaze the audience with lifts, jumps, spins and lightning-quick costume changes during icy spectaculars. Oasis and Allure of the Seas each feature the new, phenomenal AquaTheater venue; it's a huge 137,000-gallon pool with a backdrop of fountains, where dancers, divers and acrobats perform in watery shows.
Entertainment has also taken to the air, now that Royal Caribbean is transforming the popular Centrum areas aboard Vista-class ships into chic venues featuring dazzling nightly entertainment and jaw-dropping aerial spectacles. Beginning with Splendour of the Seas, the Centrum's glass elevators are now outfitted with LED panels to create five-deck-high moving visuals -- and the soaring space will come to life with a series of in-your-face acrobatic vignettes that blur the lines between choreography and technology.
Disney does an amazing job using its upper pool decks to stage elaborate theme parties, including the huge welcome aboard show, starring Mickey, Minnie and the whole gang, and pirate night, featuring the interactive and musical show, "Mickey's Pirates in the Caribbean"; the "Hunt Fer Jack" live-action pirate showdown; the "Buccaneer Blast," a spectacular display of piratical pyrotechnics and fireworks; and the "Club Pirate" dance party.
A surprise entrant in the pool-deck-as-theater game is luxury line Silversea. With a totally revamped entertainment program created exclusively for the line by Choozi Entertainment, the four ships are now utilizing their pool decks for performances of "Decades," where famous stars -- think Madonna and, yes, even Lady Gaga -- come to life as costumes are pulled from a trunk.
In the first Princess production show to start in one venue and end in another, "On the Bayou!" takes audiences onboard Coral Princess and Island Princess on a journey through New Orleans ... from Preservation Hall through the French Quarter and into Voodoo Queen's Swamp Shack. The audience actually forms a Mardi Gras parade line, led by the musicians and cast, and boogies from the ship's main theater to the Bayou Cafe for even more live traditional jazz.
Lines Let the Entertainment Fit the Space: Instead of trying to squeeze mega-ship-style lavish production shows onto the small stages of more intimate ships, some cruise lines are now trying to fit the show to the stage. With the launch of Nieuw Amsterdam, Holland America introduced more intimacy to its evening entertainment options on many ships. The line debuted the nightclub-like Showroom at Sea venue on Nieuw Amsterdam -- and added it to Veendam, Rotterdam, Statendam and Ryndam, as well. The Showroom at Sea forms a closer connection between performers and audience with a redesigned main stage that features a seamless transition between the room and the stage, new club-like seating and an enlarged dance floor enabling guests to combine cocktails, dancing and a show. New shows highlight the specific talents of the individual performers, rather than flashy sets and high-tech tricks; for example, "It Takes Two" features popular duets.
Silversea is also moving away from traditional production shows and focusing instead on concert-style entertainment. The intimate Panorama Lounge on each ship often features a vocalist singing the best-known songs and arrangements from the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Andrew Lloyd Webber or Billy Joel, accompanied by piano.
High-Tech High-Jinks: Technological innovations have led to modern-day shows packed with high-tech high-jinks on the high seas.
Two new Disney shows take technological tricks to new levels. Disney's "Believe" uses six high-def projectors and 200+ scenic elements in the production (as well as 300 costumes and 200 wigs for old-school elements). And the line's newest original stage show, "Wishes," presented exclusively aboard Disney Fantasy, uses more than 18 different puppets, including state-of-the-art mechanical and electro-mechanical full-body puppets, two separate confetti drops blanketing the audience during the show and an extravagant indoor fireworks finale.
For an adult version of high-tech aboard Disney Fantasy, Skyline, a chic bar in the ship's adults-only nighttime entertainment district, provides ever-changing birds-eye views of stunning city skylines. The venue's nine "windows to the world" are actually 65-inch LCD screens that depict panoramic views of iconic cities, such as Paris, London, Barcelona, Florence, St. Petersburg and others.
Carnival is also pulling out all the big guns, technologically speaking. Its "Destination: Unknown" is the line's largest production show ever, featuring magician Jason Byrne (a Las Vegas headliner) in a show that's full of special effects, lighting tricks, illusions ... and a helicopter. When Carnival Breeze enters service in June 2012, it will introduce "Playlist Productions" -- a captivating live performance that combines dramatic high-tech LED staging and special effects. The shows will use towering LED screens to blend video, still photography and special effects with live-onstage action in an exploration of four musical genres: "Divas," "Latin Nights," "Motor City" and "The Brits!" Also part of the Fun Ship 2.0 initiatives, the high-tech show will be rolled out to other ships over the next few years.
More than Movies: It used to be that just having a cinema onboard a cruise ship was a radical notion; then Princess upped the ante with an outdoor movie screen. Now the hottest thing in onboard cinematic entertainment is 3D, 4D and even 5D movie theaters onboard.
Disney features first-run and digital 3D movies in both the Buena Vista Theatre and the Walt Disney Theatre on all four ships. Watch out for dragons overhead and robots all around in Royal Caribbean's 3D movie theater, featuring larger-than-life presentations of DreamWorks Animation films, plus other first-run hit movies. Costa Cruise Lines and MSC Cruises take the movie experience up a notch with 4D cinemas. Costa offers three short films that feature special effects like vibrating seats, mist sprays and piped-in smells, while MSC takes strapped-in passengers on a virtual ride, complete with moving seats that make you feel the on-screen action.
Carnival Breeze will mark the debut of the new Thrill 5D Theater, featuring a high-def 3D projection system with 4D elements (like squirting water and bubbles), plus original special effects that tickle passengers' legs, blow on their necks and poke them in their seats.
Dinner as Entertainment: Tasty food and a sunset may be enough evening entertainment for some folks, but recently cruise lines have been refining the concept of dinner as entertainment.
Norwegian Epic's Cirque Dreams & Dinner is perhaps the best-known thus far. Set in the Spiegel Tent, the only "big top" at sea, this interactive entertainment and dining experience features jugglers, trapeze artists and classic Cirque airborne acrobats performing around (and above) diners as they enjoy a meal and the whimsical show.
Silversea has created its own form of dinner entertainment on Silver Spirit by channeling the era of cabarets and supper clubs. The warm and inviting Art Deco decor of Stars Supper Club was inspired by the old Rainbow Room in New York City and features small plate culinary selections from around the world, live jazz, dancing and nightclub-style entertainment to take you back to the romance and glamour of the 1930's.
With the addition of an on-deck barbecue to Wind Surf, all three Windstar Cruises vessels now offer an elaborate outdoor sunset celebration at least once each cruise. The menu includes grilled lobster and other seafood, steaks and creative skewers -- as well as live music and dancing under the ship's sails.
A Theme Thing: Theme cruises continue to gain in popularity, and music- and dance-themed sailings are all great bets for unique evening events onboard.
The main event of most theme cruises starring big name musicians (including such marquee talents as country crooner Blake Shelton and rock legends KISS) are evening shows performed in the ship's main theater. But, the cruise planners also come up with additional nightly events for passengers, such as question-and-answer sessions, trivia games and meet-and-greets.
You can also find theme nights without booking a theme cruise. Fans of dance will love the Royal Night Theme Balls aboard Cunard's trio of ships. From the Black and White Ball, featuring all black and white formal attire, to the mysterious feel of the grand old days of Venice at the Masquerade Ball (where all guests wear Venetian Mardi Gras-style masks) and the elegant Royal Ascot Ball, where hats are all the rage, dancers take to the largest dance floor at sea in the magnificent Queens Room Ballroom amid a sea of glittering ball gowns and tuxedos accompanied by the sounds of the orchestra.
--by Lynn Seldon and Cele Seldon, Cruise Critic Contributors