(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles about Crystal Cruises’ 17-day 2012 Film and Theatre Cruise, still at sea. Click here to read Part I.)
Crystal Cruises does more than simply operate two luxury ships featuring fine dining, daily activities and nighttime entertainment. It is also a producing entity tasked with booking, scheduling and rehearsing a constant stream of resident and guest performers throughout various theatrical venues on its two ships: Serenity and Symphony.
Aboard the Serenity’s Film and Theatre Cruise, flexibility is a daily mantra. Evolving guest attendance patterns, artist requirements and technical needs dictate anything from midnight choreography sessions in the ship’s fitness center or a wee-hours set load-in at the Galaxy Theatre to the transformation of a one-time matinee performance into a Saturday night two-show headline act. Just ask the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Susan Claassen (A Conversation With Edith Head) or Forbidden Broadway’s Christine Pedi.
Sunday, April 22
10 am — First F&T Lecture
It is the first official day at sea after setting sail from San Pedro the previous evening. USC professor Drew Casper’s Alfred Hitchcock lecture is the first of the 17-day voyage and literally a standing-room-only event with people lining the walls of the 202-seat Hollywood Theatre. Cruise director Gary Hunter’s interview with Casper was broadcast at 9 am on one of the ship’s 12 Crystal TV Channels, with repeats scheduled throughout the day.
Claassen, who attends the lecture, is partially responsible for Casper’s appearance. Christopher Escamilla, Crystal’s manager of production operations and entertainment integration, caught her 2011 Ovation-nominated Edith Head show at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. The two brainstormed on how to expand the show’s reach for a F&T-themed cruise and came up with Head’s connection to Hitchcock. Claassen mentioned Casper, whose name Escamilla had recently heard. Casper’s partner had dragged him to see her show.
“I thought I knew everything about Edith,” Casper admits, prior to delivering his inaugural speech. “I was blown away. I timidly approached Susan afterward as ‘Miss Head.’ I adore her. She’s the one who got me here.”
Casper proceeds to captivate the ship’s audience with a very dramatic presentation of Hitchcock’s life, admitting that the venerable filmmaker’s pathological need for order and control often mirrors his own. Adapting to life on a F&T cruise is a big test for a former Jesuit priest, who studied film and became the first holder of the Alma and Alfred Hitchcock Chair in American Film at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Â Casper will lecture on Hitchcock films throughout the voyage, with screenings ranging from Notorious to Rear Window to The Birds, and he’ll conduct Q&A sessions with other celebrity lecturers.
Noon — Entertainment Department Meeting
Cruise director Hunter convenes a mandatory meeting of the entertainment department in the 575-seat Galaxy Lounge, the ship’s premiere performance venue. This includes contract employees such as members of the Crystal Ensemble of Singers & Dancers and the Galaxy Orchestra, plus newly on-board performers, lecturers, workshop leaders, production staff and Ambassador Hosts.
As both department head and the ship’s official host, Hunter is an ever-present icon in his white nautical uniform. The ship’s daily programming falls under his jurisdiction and he acts both as its behind-the-scenes leader and public face. From interviews to event schedules to performer introductions, he guides guests from morning to evening, both on-air and in-person.
A two-time “Crystal Entertainer of the Year,” Hunter started out as a ventriloquist and boarded his first cruise ship as a performer in 1975. Hundreds of cruises later — with television, commercial and nightclub performances in between — he still considers performing at sea the “vaudeville of today.” He has an entertainer’s sense of timing, and his quick repartee keeps the meeting light and upbeat.
Hunter enters the room from the back of the house to theme music and has everyone introduce themselves to the people around them. “For those of you who haven’t cruised with me before, you’re in for a treat,” he says, sending laughter through the room. He stops to notice a few of the ship’s guests seated in the back and gently informs them that this is a staff meeting. They need to please leave “because we’re going to talk about y’all.”
Once they’ve exited, the Florida-based Hunter notes, “I’m just always thrilled to know I’m working for a company that sends me a plane ticket to fly me back to work. When you’re working at home on land, you have to pay for your own gas and pay for your own car. But this is the kind of job where someone is sending you a ticket to come to work. And then they are going to feed you. Then they are going to make your bed, right? Then they are going to do everything imaginable to make you feel like you are the best thing in the world. So you can deliver the best product to the people who make this all possible, which are people like that. The paying guest. This ship, believe it or not, was not built for us,” he says, prompting another laugh.
Hunter tells the group to remember three things: be positive, use common sense and remember that the paying guest always comes first. Of the 783 guests on board, 65 represent the entertainment department. There are 620 crew members sailing as well, making the crew to guest ratio nearly one-to-one.
He introduces Crystal’s new hotel director Christian Krempl as well as assistant cruise director Scott Mitchel. Other “core members” of his team follow, including Crystal Ensemble line captains Shane Morley and Laura Murray and Raphaél Derkson, bandleader of the Galaxy Orchestra. These are the people Hunter connect with every morning.
He explains that additional technical people are on board because Crystal is mounting a new Elton John show called Rocket Man featuring British impersonator Jonathan Kane and the Crystal Ensemble. They include Crystal’s London-based corporate technical director John Ramirez and the show’s director Katy Durham. The Ensemble will be doing double duty this cruise — performing in the currently scheduled Crystal-created shows while rehearsing Rocket Man. The show debuts on the latter part of the subsequent trans-Atlantic crossing that ends in London.
Guest lecturers on the Panama Canal and world affairs, plus class and fitness instructors are introduced. Hunter notes “these guests are going to be attending the lectures.” Following Casper’s overflowing session, former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt’s lecture in the Galaxy is near capacity.
3:30 pm — Production Meeting
In a conference room situated in the ship’s offices, Hunter leads a rehearsal space discussion with core members Morley and Murray, technical director Ramirez, production manager Crystal Lee, Rocket Man director Durham, Escamilla and band leader Derkson. They are there to coordinate Rocket Man’s rehearsal needs versus those required for Crystal Ensemble shows or headliner acts. Because the cast members are in all the shows, Hunter wants to make sure they get enough time to make the new show’s debut deadline.
The group walks through the cruise’s day-by-day show and lecture calendar for all the ship’s venues and open spaces. The Stardust Club is not being used for bingo during the ship’s sea days or evening shows on this trip. Hunter notes again that guests on this cruise are attending the lectures in good numbers and that may necessitate some room shifts.
Bargaining ensues for any increment of time that’s available in each venue. Technical and band requirements are discussed for the new performers on this segment. Performers rotate on and off ship at various ports with the second half of the F&T program embarking in the Cayman Islands on May 3. Pedi’s upcoming Great Dames show is changed from a 4:30 matinee to two performances on a formal-wear Saturday night. Escamilla is asked how much time she and her accompanist Joel Martin will need. One to two hours, he replies. Then he states that the Gay Men’s Chorus has requested to rehearse in the Galaxy at midnight.
Ramirez says no because the curtains and scrims are being fire-treated at that time. He counters with a noon-4 offer prior to the chorus’ 4:30 matinee. Lighting and tech can be done from 12:30 to 2. [GMCLA ends up rehearsing in the 24-hour fitness center’s mirror-walled wooden dance floor area from midnight to 3 am on two nights as well.]
Susan Claassen places a request for her Edith Head set to be put up the night before her matinee show so she can dress it with photos and other props. A discussion ensues about where to hide it during the morning lectures and a decision is made to place it behind the mid-stage curtain.
The Rocket Man team takes advantage of the Stardust for rehearsals. Shore excursion days are prime rehearsal days, because much of the daytime lecture and activity scheduling is tabled. The Panama Canal day is wide open as the entire day is devoted to navigating the locks and Gatun Lake, accompanied by live narration throughout the ship’s sound system.
Cartagena, Colombia is debated in terms of number of off-shore departures. Hunter interjects that it is a neutral zone for the drug cartel lords so their families can enjoy the city. No one mentions the Secret Service scandal that recently unfolded at the Caribe Hotel.
Monday, April 23
The ship anchors in Cabo San Lucas Monday afternoon. The Gay Men’s Chorus manages to squeeze in another daytime rehearsal before disembarking for a few hours, then does a late-night session in the fitness center.
Tuesday, April 24
Tuesday is the chorus’ matinee performance, preceded by a tech rehearsal in the Galaxy. Pedi and Jazzical pianist Joel A. Martin join the group. Pedi is slated to perform two songs with the octet as both accent and advertisement for her own show four days later. Pedi is a cruise-line veteran, while Martin and the nine men are first-time cruise performers. The trick is tweaking the right material for each ship’s audience, she notes. Crystal’s frequent travelers and world cruisers are similar to theater subscribers who know what they like, what they don’t and are repeat customers. Some of the most loyal passengers have taken multiple cruises that number in double digits or even triple digits.
Members of the chorus admit they have no idea how the show will be received. On a personal level, Christopher Etscheid says the response from Crystal’s senior-aged guests has been very warm so far. The toned and fit choir has already earned an “eye candy” moniker by female travelers of every age range.
By 4:30 show time, the audience is packed, and the guys are tuxedo-clad. Their “Just Go to The Movies” set includes both choreographed group numbers and solo pieces ranging from Jersey Boys and Judy Garland medleys (featuring a Garland film montage and trolley theme) to Moon River and an a cappella reggae rendition of Over the Rainbow. By the end, the full audience quickly rises to a standing ovation with cheers and bravos. The air is thick with good will and heartfelt feeling. From this moment forward, the members of the group become the ship’s darlings.
Wednesday, April 25
Dr. Casper discusses Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train in the morning.
GMCLA hosts an early-afternoon panel in the Stardust Club dubbed a “beyond the footlights” conversation of uplifting music, men and a message. The chorus opens with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” then segues into brief comments on their professions and their individual coming-out stories. These range from one man who was outed by a mother after she discovered a diary — he was immediately disowned — to others who faced death threats, to those who felt full family acceptance. One of the men watched a gay older brother’s coming-out experience, which included seeing his mother sprinkle water on his brother to exorcise the demons, and vowed to never come out of the closet — until his brother died.
“Everything that I do in my daily life, like singing in the chorus,” says Ryan Slattery, a television writer and producer, “is to show people around me, especially young people, that it does get better. The most profound thing that I have ever learned in my life is that there is no normal. Everything and yet nothing is normal. We [indicating the GMCLA members] are all unique and special people with professional lives and a dozen college degrees among us. We are all special. We’re all normal. And that is what the chorus does. It spreads the message through the universal language of music that there is no normal. We are proud to be members of the chorus.”
Artistic director Armstrong explains that the prior night’s preparation for today’s talk was very emotional, as many of the men had not shared their stories with each other. Today’s presentation is no different, as tears flow freely down audience members’ faces.
Public service announcements by Melissa Manchester, LeAnn Rimes, George Takei and Leslie Jordan in support of GMCLA’s free high school and college outreach program entitled the Alive Music Project (AMP) are shown between stories. Another video explains the creative journey of the choir’s recently announced partnership with the It Gets Better project, in collaboration with Speak Theater Arts, to develop a national touring show.
GMCLA ends with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” before fielding a Q&A session and emotional congratulations. The men have now become sons and brothers to the audience. Several travelers announce they would adopt them and plan to contribute to their efforts.
Thursday, April 26
Casper and Pedi draw hosting duties for the ship’s team trivia. A favorite pastime of repeat Crystal cruisers, the fiercely competitive event is held at noon during sea days in the Palm Court. Teams of approximately six or more vie for Crystal items by writing answers to 15 questions on a variety of topics. Today’s questions are all film- and theater-related, ranging from “In what city did Georges and Albin operate their nightclub in the musical Le Cage Aux Folles? to “What is the name of the musical derived from the movie The Apartment?”
Susan Claassen works with her team from midnight until 4 am getting her set ready for the 4:30 pm Edith Head show matinee in the Galaxy. This is the first opportunity to get into the space due to back-to-back rehearsals and shows being conducted there.
“The set is a character in the play,” she explains a few days after the performance, when asked about how the show is tailored for the ship. “You have to have that stuff, [photos of star clients, imitation Oscars, sketches, costumes], and doing a PowerPoint is not the same as seeing real photographs” and then inviting audience members to come up on stage and examine them close-up.
“We thought we could get everything into four or five suitcases. The three dress forms would be more of an issue. It’s all packable but in tubs. Greg [Schreiner] had one he could walk on and I sent him one so they walked that on. I bought a new one and we brought the dress form for Elizabeth Taylor. So all of what’s on stage fit into 4Â½ [suitcases] — we shared some of Miss Head’s bags, to do it.”
Claassen says the photos are easy to mount because their Velcro backing is normally placed upon Velcro-sensitive fabric, which allows them to be tweaked. Crystal provided foam core panels for Claassen’s use. So she laid out every photo on a template, because her team would have only one shot at sticking them up on the panels using back-to-back Velcro strips. Finding furniture for the set turned out to be more of a challenge since much of it is built into the ship. Claassen got permission to borrow tables from several stateroom verandas while Crystal’s staff found black cloths to cover them. Rather than ship the set’s rug from Tucson, technical director John Ramirez bought one in Vancouver while on the world cruise immediately preceding the current one.
“I had worked with Terry [Krueger] because it was so important that the sound sound natural,” she offers. “I have a really small head to fit. Normally if I use a mike, we fit it under my wig. John said the sound is terrible that way in that room. So Terry fit the mike to my head. I put the wig on, moved it around so they wouldn’t see everything, wrapped the bun so it wouldn’t look obvious and did sound checks. There aren’t many cues in the show but it has to look gorgeous. So Jim [Blair] worked very hard with Crystal to set the gorgeous lights and to light the dresses.”
Their efforts pay off. The matinee audience laughs and enthusiastically applauds the 70-minute show. A front row gynecologist named Stanley becomes a show participant as do others who submitted questions for Miss Head prior to curtain. Blair acts as both host and audience plant to pose plot-related questions to Claassen. Not even the appearance of two men who wander into the theater at the show’s mid-point and obliviously walk in front of the stage looking for their wives can throw off her timing. Audience members are invited on-stage afterward to view the show’s artifacts and have their photo taken with Head.
“It’s wonderful that there were people from all over the world,” she admits. “Some knew [about her], some didn’t know, which is usually the case. But with this you have one shot and you want it to be so great.”
Saturday, April 28
Following Friday’s stop in Caldera, Costa Rica, Casper and Claassen host team trivia. Questions include: “In North by Northwest, what movie musical’s theme song did Cary Grant sing in the shower?” “How many Oscars did Edith Head win?” “What is the name of the ship that Anything Goes is set upon?” Three teams tie with 14 answers correct. A mad elimination round ensues.
Pedi’s The Great Dames: Ladies of Stage, Screen and Beyond plays on both a formal dress night as well as the eve of Sunday’s Panama Canal crossing, set to begin at 6:40 a.m. Accompanied by Joel A. Martin and the Galaxy Orchestra, her first set offers a Comden and Green tune “If You Hadn’t But You Did,” appearances by Pedi as NEWSical the Musical stars Suzy Orman and Nancy Grace, Pedi as Angela Lansbury as a phone sex operator doing Mrs. Potts, the Gay Men’s Chorus doing back-up vocals, a rendition of “I Will Survive” featuring Pedi’s versions of Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, and Joan Rivers, plus a Paula Deen send-up. Pedi deletes Deen and another song to shorten her second set but adds Oprah Winfrey into the mix.
Winfrey once kidded the now newly admitted diabetic Deen about the health risks of eating a steady diet of her butter and sugar-laden Southern recipes. Dean’s reply: “I’m your cook, not your doctor!”
**Photos not credited are by Deborah Behrens
(Stay tuned for the next cruise re-cap featuring the Panama Canal crossing, Cartagena’s historic TIA theater, Tippi Hedren and much more. Click here to read Part III)