Crystal Serenity departs the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and sails up the Eastern Seaboard for the final leg of Crystal Cruises’ 2012 Film and Theatre Cruise. Guests shop on Ft. Lauderdale’s tony Las Olas Boulevard or skim the Everglades by boat before heading north to Rhett Butler’s birthplace and home of the annual Spoleto Festival USA — Charleston, South Carolina. Plantation tours, gallery visits and leisurely meandering through the historic City Market highlight our visit to this arts-centric town, which lays claim to the first building constructed solely for theatrical performance in the US. The final roster of F&T lecturers and performers entertain guests as the ship completes the 17-day journey into New York City.
Friday, May 4 – Ft. Lauderdale
We dock in the first U.S. port since leaving Los Angeles on April 21. All passengers must disembark from the ship and undergo a face-to-face US Immigration inspection at the shore side terminal. Once through, many head out to guided or self-planned shore excursions while others wait for Serenity to pass inspection before re-boarding. Cell phones, iPads and laptops are noticeable everywhere as this is the first stop in nearly two weeks where domestic cell reception and free WiFi is available.
Stephen and Catherine Shultz stand in a foursome with producer/director Karen Cradle and actress Tippi Hedren. The Rolling Hills residents are long time supporters of the Shambala Preserve in the Antelope Valley and sit on the executive board of the Hedren-founded Roar Foundation that supports Shambala. Their appearance on the ship is a surprise gift to the animal activist who recently boarded in Grand Cayman. The couple are also active participants in the LA theater community via Norris Center for the Arts and Reprise Theatre Company.
Steve checks his email via Blackberry when he turns to Hedren and says, “Do you know that Melanie is doing a play?” No, she replies — she hadn’t heard that her daughter, actress Melanie Griffith, had joined the cast of Scott Caan’s No Way Around But Through at the Falcon Theatre. It is a surreal moment.
Later that afternoon, the ship hosts a paparazzi-style red-carpet event in the Palm Court to honor Hedren, star of The Birds. Guests may opt to have their picture taken with the Hitchcock blonde in front of two massive Klieg lights. A full-size poster from the film stands at the entrance. Some people take turns imitating Hedren’s iconic screaming pose before entering the room.
The “Terrifically Tippi” reception serves up canapés with film-themed toothpicks and wine from Vintage Wines Estates, with labels featuring the actress. Hedren makes a toast and thanks everyone for coming. We continue practicing our reactions to live birds attacking us.
Saturday, May 5 – Kate Burton and Michael Ritchie
Until today, actress Kate Burton and husband Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, have been able to maintain a relatively low profile. The cruising neophytes boarded two days ago on Grand Cayman and have spent their time acclimating to pampered ship life while dining with CTG donors and friends. They are the featured speakers in the Galaxy Lounge this morning, moderated by USC’s Dr. Drew Casper. The trio gather at the Bistro, Burton’s favorite new daytime hangout, to prep prior to the Q&A session. When asked about the Tony nomination for best musical for the musical Leap of Faith, which premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre in fall 2010, Ritchie admits he was shocked, given the show’s poor ticket sales. He was expecting a closing notice any minute. [That public announcement is made three days later on May 8].
Once inside the Galaxy, the two proceed to charm the audience with tales of their polar-opposite upbringings. Burton, born in Geneva to the legendary Richard Burton and then wife Sybil (now Christopher), grows up in New York City, becomes stepdaughter to Elizabeth Taylor and stepsister to her brood, attends Brown University aiming to become a diplomat, then starts rehearsal for her first Broadway show (Present Laughter directed by George C. Scott) on the day after she graduates from Yale Drama School.
A self-described “Irish Catholic bum,” Ritchie is raised in a blue-collar family in a town with no theater — Worcester, Mass. After failing to make the baseball team, he gets cast in a high school musical revue directed by a man who ran New Jersey’s Surflight Theatre. At 15, Ritchie apprentices there and finds his “tribe” among the summer stock company. He does 70 musicals in 7 years. He flunks out of a local college after his sophomore year, then subsequently heads to New York with $36 and a bag of dirty laundry that is stolen his first night there. Ritchie survives by doing various backstage technical jobs until he lands his first stage manager gig Off-Broadway, which is a disaster. His second stage manager gig is an out-of-town Ohio tryout for Candida that unexpectedly transfers to Broadway. Producers want to ditch the 22-year-old newbie but star Joanna Woodward backs him. “Without her, I would not be sitting here today.”
Coincidentally, the two met 30 years ago today during Burton’s audition for Present Laughter. Casper asks if it was love at first sight. “I think we’re going to have different stories here,” Ritchie interjects as the room erupts into laughter.
Burton replies, “Go ahead, honey. You talk first.”
Director Scott had stage manager Ritchie read his part with each of the actresses up for the ingénue. Ritchie says he fell in love with Burton the moment she came in but then heard from Scott she was dating his eldest son. (It turned out to have been in high school).
As Burton takes up the story, she corrects Ritchie’s memory and recalls that during her audition, he was actually reading a woman’s role (which would be played by Dana Ivey). “I did think: very cute, can’t act at all.” This gets a big laugh. “I’ll never see him again.”
Burton got the role. After taking the train from New Haven to Grand Central Station, a taxi cab waited at the curb. “The driver says, “‘where are you going, little lady?” she remembers. “I say, “‘I’m going to Broadway!'” The audience goes wild.
“The very first day we sit down for the table read. I sit across from this chubby young actor who is playing the crazed playwright. His name is Nathan Lane.” Burton says she spotted Ritchie out of the corner of her eye. “He has a suntan as he does now and was standing with his friend Ted, the assistant stage manager. I said to Nathan, “‘who’s that guy?’ “‘Some beach bum,” growls Lane via Burton’s imitation. Lane winds up being an usher at their wedding.
The three-time Tony nominee discusses her reluctance to become an actress having seen the business firsthand via her family, taking the time to prove herself, working in theater versus television or film, acting opposite her famous dad, why everything she learned coalesced at 40 for Hedda Gabler, being a trustee at her Brown alma mater and how Grey’s Anatomy unexpectedly “put her on the map.”
Casper asks Ritchie what his criteria is for choosing plays. Ritchie says he looks first for theatricality. “There are a lot of great stories that can be told but not necessarily theatrically. There’s great sermons you can hear but there’s nothing theatrical about that. There are books you can read that don’t translate to the stage. It’s hard to define what theatrical is. It doesn’t mean bells and whistles or music. Some of the most theatrical things you can see are someone sitting alone on a stool in a spotlight.”
Because of Center Theatre Group’s size, the next thing he looks for is range. “If I’ve chosen a new musical, I look for an old drama. If I choose a play that’s very plot-driven, I look for a play that is actor-driven. My responsibility is to present the broadest range of theater to the greatest number of people first in Los Angeles and then across the country.”
Ritchie discusses the success of CTG’s educational outreach and play development programs, then admits the hardest thing to get from young playwrights is a story. “They write characters very well, they write incidents and interactions very well, but there is not a plot.” He cites today’s ADD-style media-in-sound-bites culture for contributing to the demise of the narrative arc. “It’s much harder to find nowadays.”
Back at the Bistro
After lunch, Burton and Ritchie settle in at a window table at the Bistro to discuss the cruise and the opportunity it provides for one-on-one interaction with CTG’s donors on board. Crystal’s 2012 Film & Theatre Cruise represents a new partnership between the two organizations, following a similar one established with the Music Center and its Spotlight Awards program that led to the 2009 launch of Crystal’s popular Emerging Artists cruises.
The couple had previously led a donor trip to London but it didn’t provide an opportunity for the same level of personal discussion. “It’s a lot more structured with plenty of cultural activities,” says Ritchie. “It’s fun but what’s nice about this is we can sit down with everyone for a minimum of a few hours.”
“It’s not stressful,” interjects Burton.
“That certainly doesn’t happen for me on opening nights or at cocktail hours where I feel like I’m rushing through saying hi to people,” Ritchie continues. He adds that several passengers came up after their talk asking how they could contribute to CTG, and a current donor couple planned to raise their contribution to the next level.
Both admit they had no idea what to expect on this cruise. Burton hadn’t been on a ship since the QE2 with her father and stepmother in 1969. When asked if she’d sailed on their infamous private yacht Kalizma, Burton smiles and replies, “I was on that all the time. I had a room.” Ritchie kids her and says he had his own room too as a child, one that “I shared with my sister!” Both laugh. He clearly relishes playing the rascal scalawag to her jet-set childhood.
Burton reports she is slated to direct her first professional play, The Other Woman, at Berkeley Repertory, in February 2013. She has previously directed two MFA student productions at USC as well as an evening of Shakespeare and Tchaikovsky with Gustavo Dudamel at the LA Philharmonic last year.
Ritchie is the midst of selecting his next seasons for the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas. “When I go back, it’s going to be a blood bath for a week as we make decisions. We’ve got one touring show, Anything Goes, and then we’re building from scratch. Nothing’s available. The Pantages has Book of Mormon. So we’re going to duke it out when I get back. Some of it is logistics, some of it desire, some of it the ability to finance and availability. The Kirk Douglas is pretty well set.” (Since that conversation took place, the Ahmanson and Douglas seasons have been announced).
The Mark Taper is the wild card, he says. “I’ve usually got a dozen plays in mind for the Taper. Sometimes I carry around the same play for five years and then don’t do it.” Ritchie wants to do Venus in Fur with its star Nina Arianda and is negotiating with the Broadway producers who are considering a tour, which would eliminate the Taper for consideration. “It would make a good early anchor for a season. Then it would allow me to make my next decision because I have X.”
When asked whether play readings are helpful to his selection process, Ritchie says no. “Everybody wants to put on a play reading. I used to go to them and I would get frustrated. It may be illuminating to the director or the playwright, but I could never judge a play better or worse when someone read it to me. I can read and I can control my time better. To me one of the big factors is, do I want to turn the page? Is there a story there? What’s going to happen next? Turning the page is huge for me. It’s how I assess the play.”
Later that afternoon Karen Cadle presents “Unforgettable Legends of the Silver Screen” in the Starlight Lounge. She offers up personal memories of legends ranging from the “enchanting” Audrey Hepburn who believed “Paris is always a good idea” to Ernest Borgnine, whose mother never asked him as a child about what he had learned in school that day but rather “how many people did you make laugh?” Cadle also reads select line items from stars’ demand lists including Jerry Lewis’ two-pager for a Rome appearance that requires “extra wastebaskets in every room” to Joan Collins’ request for CNN to be on in her hotel suite upon her arrival.
At teatime in the Palm Court, Greg Schreiner stages a second costume extravaganza entitled “Out of the Closet with Hollywood Revisited.” The Crystal Ensemble of Singers and Dancers once again model iconic film and television costumes from his extensive collection.
Sunday, May 6 – Charleston, South Carolina
Crystal Serenity passengers stream into this charming Confederate port city heading for its historic Charleston City Market. Four blocks long, this open-air potpourri of vendor stalls features everything from gourmet food items to local artisan crafts. One of the oldest in the country, the market was built in stages from 1807 to 1830 to originally house produce, meat and fish merchants. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney deeded the land to the city for use as a public market in perpetuity or it would revert back to the family.
Meanwhile, other guests embark on various excursions including Boone Hall Plantation, the inspiration for Ashley Wilkes’ Twelve Oaks home in Gone With The Wind; Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired; carriage rides throughout the city’s beautifully preserved historic district and a walking tour of its numerous art galleries and the Gibbes Museum of Art. The town’s current economic well-being is due in large part to concerted civic and private efforts to support and promote its local artists, cultural institutions and heritage to attract like-minded patrons from around the globe.
This Southern Belle boasts of a lengthy theater legacy with new bragging rights earned from the past week’s Tony Awards announcement. The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess received 10 nominations on Tuesday for its revival of the George and Ira Gershwin opera, which author DuBose Heyward set in the city’s then Cabbage Row tenement under a fictional “Catfish Row” moniker. The original name comes from the cabbages and other vegetables sold there before it was privately acquired in 1928. Today the complex on 89-91 Church Street that once housed 10 families is a pair of town homes with specialty shops below.
Since 1977, the city has played host to the annual Spoleto Festival USA, a 17-day performing arts feast held in historic theaters, churches and outdoor spaces. It features performances by both renowned and emerging performers in theater, opera, dance and music. This year’s line-up (in late May and early June) includes the American premiere of the Philip Glass opera Kepler, a new work by Mike Daisey, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Dublin’s Gate Theatre doing Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Dock Street Theatre.
Built in 1735, the historic Dock Street Theatre “was the first building in America built exclusively to be used for theatrical performances.” It opened February 12, 1736 with The Recruiting Officer. The original building was destroyed by fire and the Planter’s Hotel built on its grounds in 1809. One of the city’s theatrical troupes took up residence there while performing at the neighboring New Theatre. Actor Junius Brutus Booth, father of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, frequented the luxurious hotel, as did wealthy planters. It fell into disrepair after the Civil War and was heavily damaged by an 1886 earthquake. The abandoned relic became a 1935 WPA restoration project whose purpose was to construct a new theater using the hotel’s existing shell and grand foyer. It re-opened in 1937 with then writer-in-residence DuBose Heyward in attendance.
The 450-seat theater underwent a $19 million renovation in 2010. Today the venue is home to Charleston Stage Company, South Carolina’s largest professional theater company, currently celebrating its 35th season.
Not far away is the The Footlight Players, Charleston’s oldest continuously performing theater company, founded in 1931. A successful series of one-act plays encouraged the company to incorporate in 1932, and it purchased an old cotton warehouse two years later. Footlight performed at venues around town until finally converting the warehouse into an actual theater in 1941. Over the next 45 years it produced seasons at both the Footlight and the Dock Street Theater until taking up permanent residence in 1986.
Old Charleston has more than 2,000 landmarked 17th-19th century buildings on cobblestone streets. One of them is the Pink House, said to be the oldest standing tavern building in the South. Built in 1690, the three-story Bermuda stone structure was also a bordello and features only one room per floor. It now houses an art gallery.
The ship lifts anchor at 5:00 pm. Guests hear Serenity’s official sail away song — Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” — for the last time on this voyage as we pull away from shore en route to New York.
But before spirits can sink too low, one of Broadway’s favorite belters, Karen Morrow (The Grass Harp, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), performs her “Life Upon a Wicked Stage” cabaret act in the Avenue Saloon accompanied by Greg Schreiner. Theatrical anecdotes and favorite show tunes bring loud laughter and applause from guests and director pals like Will Mackenzie and John Bowab. Her set is way too short but caps a great day of Southern hospitality.
Monday, May 7 — Last Day at Sea
Dr. Drew Casper presents his last Hitchcock film lecture on Psycho which he calls the “most written about and profiled film in the world.” Hitchcock made a monster movie in which the monster is the boy next door, Casper explains. The film is about isolation — “We are all in our own private traps and no one gets out of it.” There is no one to identify or sympathize with in the movie, forcing audiences to face their own loneliness. Psycho changed film exhibition because of its “no entry” policy once the film began, Casper adds, before he thanks guests for becoming his family on the voyage.
Next, he and Susan Claassen host the final round of Team Trivia in the Palm Court. A softball question regarding Mame’s last name draws a laugh from John Bowab’s team. The director helmed the show for numerous leading ladies including Angela Lansbury in the 1983 Broadway revival. Their gang ultimately triumphs and wins individual trophies.
Veteran make-up artist and agent William Squire lectures on being “Ready for the Red Carpet: Your Personal Hollywood Style” and does a make-up session for the game Karen Morrow. His three make-up no-nos are: 1) wrong foundation color, 2) too much blush and 3) too much eyeliner. Squire’s number one suggestion is topping eyelash tips with a touch of blue mascara over the black to bring out the whites of the eyes.
Guests are busy packing and making final arrangements for tomorrow’s disembarkation in New York. Addresses and emails are exchanged. Toasts are made to new friends during the final dinner in the main dining room. Cruise director Gary Hunter hosts the farewell show of comedians, singers and dancers. He bids everyone farewell, safe journeys and a return visit soon.
Tuesday, May 8 – New York City
Some guests rise early to watch the ship sail past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor on an overcast morning. Others awaken to see veranda furniture being swapped for new models prior to the ship’s Atlantic crossing.
Serenity has sailed 5,782 nautical miles and 6,649 land miles since it departed from San Pedro on April 21. A measurable distance in miles, but immeasurable in memories. Travel, like good theater, transforms you. Combining the two can be a powerful catalyst for change. Just ask the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. May more LA performing artists and theater companies sail the high seas as those cultural ambassadors. And may Crystal Cruises and other cruise lines continue to provide the stage for them to do so.
***All photos by Deborah Behrens unless otherwise noted.[slideshow post_id=”46049″ exclude=”46148,46352,46353,46356,46357,46358,46359,46360,46361,46362,46363,46367,46368,46374,46375,46378, 46380,46381,46493,46049,46494″]