We can't conceal our excitement: Onboard entertainment at sea, once a weakness on many cruises, just keeps improving. Today, you can still see piano bar acts, dance to a DJ, watch movies under the stars on deck and try your hand at karaoke, but the stage shows are leaps and bounds ahead of their predecessors. Long gone are the days -- well, on most lines anyway -- of musical revues that use high school-caliber performers and costumes. Instead, we've entered an era of one-upmanship -- Broadway shows! Celebrity singers! World-class comedians! -- that has benefitted cruisers greatly.
1. Bigger Name Acts
When Carnival Cruise Line announced in early 2014 that it would be bringing famous acts onboard, it was a real game changer. Sure, other lines have cover bands, and there are plenty of music theme cruises that sail with boldfaced names, but Carnival has the real deal on regular sailings: Picture seeing Chicago, Lady Antebellum, Jennifer Hudson, Foreigner or Journey in a small ship auditorium in front of a few hundred people.
In addition, Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Getaway offers the Grammy Experience, where Grammy winners and nominees perform in a dedicated club. Meanwhile, Celebrity Cruises has created a partnership with 54 Below (the Supper Club in the Studio 54 Space) to host cabaret acts on select Celebrity Summit sailings from Cape Liberty to Bermuda. Broadway veterans who perform onboard include Andrea McArdle, the original "Annie" who also starred in "Les Miserables" and "Beauty and The Beast"; Jarrod Spector, who played Frankie Valli in "Jersey Boys"; and Anthony Rapp, the original Mark in "Rent."
2. Longer Broadway and West End shows
For cruisers used to top-tier entertainment on land, such as touring productions of big-name plays and musicals, the opportunity to see proper stage productions of Broadway and West End shows onboard a cruise ship is huge. In the last few years, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have begun to offer stagings of famous musicals on select ships. Norwegian offers "Legally Blonde" on Norwegian Getaway and "Rock of Ages" on Norwegian Breakaway; the line will launch "Priscilla: Queen of the Desert" in October 2015 on Norwegian Epic. Royal Caribbean shows "Chicago" on Allure of the Seas, "Cats" on Oasis of the Seas and "Mamma Mia" on Quantum of the Seas; it will launch "We Will Rock You" on Anthem of the Seas in April 2015. They're not the only ones: Disney debuted a 45-minute musical show of "Aladdin" in 2012 when Disney Fantasy launched.
3. Shorter Revue Shows
While Norwegian and Royal Caribbean are offering longer performances, Carnival's 2.0 enhancements include a new program that goes the other direction. The line formed a partnership with Playlist Productions to do 30-minute revue-style stage shows onboard that are scheduled frequently and on multiple days. The result is that passengers can see more shows without dedicating their entire evening to a performance. Even better, these revues aren't the same kind of showtune medleys you would have seen in the past. Instead, the sets and costumes are more extravagant, and the musical choices are cooler, too.
Carnival is not the only line sticking with revues but making them shorter -- and, at the same time, better. Crystal Cruises recently launched 30-minute shows, "Illuminate: The Tourist" on Crystal Serenity and "Illuminate: Imagine" on Crystal Symphony. Cunard also went with a shorter revue-style program with its launch of the 45-minute "Hollywood Rocks" on Queen Victoria.
4. Other Land-Based Acts
Musicals aren't the only recognizable names on the evening schedules these days. Norwegian Cruise Line offers productions by performance artists Blue Man Group and the dance troupe Burn the Floor. The improvement isn't just in name only; both are a serious step up in quality from acts you might have seen at sea a decade ago. Crystal Cruises' debut of the "Illuminate" series also falls into this category, as it was first made famous on NBC's "America's Got Talent." Cunard's partnership with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts has also produced high-quality performances, including renditions of Shakespeare's plays.
5. High-Tech Effects
Royal Caribbean's new Quantum of the Seas wowed passengers in many ways when it debuted in November 2014, but one of the most pleasant surprises was the fantastic shows in the Two70 Lounge. These use not only top-tier dancers performing stunning choreography, but also acrobats that come down from the ceiling and rise up out of the stage, in addition to (perhaps coolest of all) six robotic screens. Some of the shows in Carnival's Playlist Productions also use LED screens, and Crystal Cruises' "Illuminate" series uses performers in costumes lined with lights to create a dramatic effect.
6. Dinner Theater
Sure, Silversea has had a supper club for some time now, but Norwegian has gotten into the game, too, in the last few years. Its Illusionarium (a magic-themed performance) and Cirque Dreams (acrobatic) shows combine a mediocre dinner with a truly impressive stage performance for a fun night out. The best part: The purpose-built venues themselves, designed as theaters in the round, are so well constructed that they're worth a visit on their own.
7. More (and Better) Comedy Acts
Norwegian and Carnival have both upped their comedy game in recent years, with partnerships (Second City for Norwegian and George Lopez for Carnival) that have improved the caliber of the entertainers immensely. Both lines offer early shows for the whole family and "blue" late-night sets for the over-21 crowd. Just be warned: When comedians are told it's an adults-only show, they usually take advantage of the opportunity to shock the crowd.
8. Entertainment That's Outside the Box
Innovation is the name of the game these days, and anything is possible when it comes to entertainment options beyond the typical production shows and guest acts. Carnival has launched a partnership with Hasbro to have game shows onboard the ship, with life-size games of Yahtze and Operation, as well as Monopoly-themed quizzes. The whole family can participate in both early-evening and matinee shows. But Carnival is not the only line with creative after-dark entertainment. Royal Caribbean introduced an AquaTheater with diving performances on Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, and Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian have regularly scheduled fireworks displays and deck parties.
9. Better Cover Bands
Cruise lines have long had cover bands onboard, but typically they were house troupes that covered different music at different times. Now a variety of lines is bringing on groups that specialize in one particular band. Norwegian Epic has performers that impersonate Madonna, Elvis and Tina Turner. Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas has cover bands that celebrate Journey, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees and Bon Jovi, and they perform in a purpose-built concert space that feels like a cool venue in a big city. Also, in November 2014, Crystal Cruises launched a Billy Joel cover band show on Crystal Serenity, led by James Fox, who starred as The Piano Man in "Movin' Out" on Broadway.
--By Sherri Eisenberg, Cruise Critic contributor