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10 Best Shows on Cruise Ships

Arcadia Theater on Freedom of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)
Arcadia Theater on Freedom of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

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Step aside, feathered showgirls. Cruise ship stage shows now rival land-based theater productions, thanks to partnerships with Broadway musicals and big-name entertainers. Outrageous costumes, high-tech effects and creative venues (including water-based and ice skating performances) are now commonplace on many mega-ships. With so many incredible offerings, we had trouble choosing our favorites, but if you're addicted to great theater, you can't go wrong with these top 10 shows on cruise ships today.

Updated August 21, 2018

1. "Mamma Mia!" on Royal Caribbean

Ship: Allure of the Seas

Why We Love It: ABBA songs, colorful costumes and a silly-yet-sweet plot combine to create a toe-tapping extravaganza -- part of Royal Caribbean's Broadway At Sea program. The Greek Island setting is perfect for a show at sea, and the musical is so well done that many cruisers go back to see "Mamma Mia!" a second time.


2. "Jersey Boys" on Norwegian Cruise Line

Ships: Norwegian Bliss

Why We Love It: Just as it did on Broadway, "Jersey Boys" gets a standing ovation on Norwegian Bliss -- from both Cruise Critic editors and passengers who snag seats to the show. The at-sea rendition of the Tony Award-winning hit, which follows the rise and fall of the Four Seasons and its lead singer Frankie Valli, gives you all the feels. It's joyful, suspenseful and emotional (confession: we teared up at one point) -- all while transporting you back to the '60s and '70s with hits like "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Sherry," "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," and "Working My Way Back to You."


3. "Tangled: The Musical" on Disney Cruise Line

'Tangled, The Musical' cast

Ship: Disney Magic

Why We Love It: Disney brings the same entertainment quality to its onboard shows as it does to its park-based productions and animated blockbusters. One of our favorites is "Tangled: The Musical," inspired by the fairytale-turned-Disney-animated-movie story of Rapunzel, who makes new friends (including character favorite Maximus) and falls in love on her journey to discovering she's the missing princess. We don't want to give away too much about the special effects, but we will say the "floating lanterns" scene is one of the most magical moments we've ever witnessed on a Disney ship.


4. "Magic Castle at Sea" on Crystal Cruises

Ships: Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity

Why We Love It: Some lines win with huge high-tech, high-energy shows to standing-room-only crowds. Crystal excels in intimate, high-quality experiences, and its best show follows that credo. Just 20 people at a time can attend this sleight-of-hand magic show, performed by a rotating roster of magicians affiliated with Hollywood's Magic Castle (a private magicians' club). Even close-up, you'll be amazed at the tricks these magicians can pull off without you having any idea how they're doing it.


5. Shakespearean Plays on Cunard Line

Ship: Queen Mary 2

Why We Love It: Take a transatlantic cruise on Queen Mary 2, and you'll be treated to a rarity at sea: serious theater performed by a renowned professional troupe. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) posts actors onboard ocean crossings to perform hourlong versions of Shakespearean plays, such as "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The shows change every transatlantic season, but the quality remains outstanding.


6. Epic Rock on Carnival Cruise Line

Ships: Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Glory, Carnival Conquest, Carnival Splendor, Carnival Elation, Carnival Imagination, Carnival Paradise, Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend

Why We Love It: Lasers, shooting flames and pyrotechnics set the stage for this high-intensity show, where performers in rock star attire sing and dance to top hits from the '70s and '80s. Kick back and enjoy the sounds of rock legends like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Guns 'n Roses and Journey, and don't be afraid to sing your heart out.


7. BBC's "The Frozen Planet" on Holland America Line

Frozen Planet Live on Oosterdam

Ship: Koningsdam

Why We Love It: You'll feel like you're soaring through the sky above Antarctica and the North Pole in Koningsdam's "The Frozen Planet." The show, developed in part by BBC Earth, is held in the ship's World Stage -- a high-tech venue with a 270-degree, wraparound LED screen that surrounds the audience. To elevate the experience, live musicians perform dramatic scores onstage as images from around the world appear on the screen behind them.


8. Royal Caribbean's AquaTheater Shows

AquaTheater on Symphony of the Seas

Ships: Symphony of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas

Why We Love It: The concept of Royal Caribbean's AquaTheater is enough to make your jaw drop: high-diving and aerial performances in an amphitheater-style pool at the back of the ship. Add state-of-the-art lighting and special effects bouncing off the water and two outdoor screens, and it's easy to see why any show at the AquaTheater is on the top of our list. Just be aware: If you're sitting in one of the first few rows, you're bound to get splashed.


9. For the Record: The Brat Pack on Norwegian Cruise Line

Ship: Norwegian Escape

Why We Love It: Even if you didn't go to high school in the '80s, you will still love Norwegian Escape's nostalgic "For the Record: The Brat Pack." The musical tribute to film director John Hughes combines songs and plot points from classics like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Pretty in Pink" and "The Breakfast Club" into one emotional, epic fashion-filled love story -- and we bet you'll find it hard not to sing along. Note: The show does have adult themes, so we recommend leaving the little ones at the kids' club.


10. The Secret Silk on Princess Cruises

Ships: Royal Princess and Island Princess

Why We Love It: Through its partnership with Oscar-, Grammy- and Tony Award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz -- best known for shows like "Wicked" and "Godspell" -- Princess Cruises has developed arguably the best show in its fleet: "The Secret Silk." The Broadway-caliber show was adapted from the Japanese fable, "The Grateful Crane," and the visuals are unlike any show we've seen on a Princess ship. High-quality special effects commingle with puppets from Jim Henson's creature shop; meanwhile, iconic songs like Sarah McLachlan's "In the Arms of an Angel," The Police's "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" and Christina Aguilera's "Fighter" are performed with an Asian twist.


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