Article in Gay Star Travel by Joe Morgan, 30 November, 2018. Full Article at https://bit.ly/2HuIO2I
Sure you like musical theatre. You’ve been to Broadway or the West End a couple times. You might even own a Wicked or a Lion King album.
But what about a 24/7 immersive production, at sea?
For some people, the idea of spending a few days listening to nothing but show tunes would be hellish. For others, nirvana.
My partner Ed leapt at the chance of going on a cruise. He’s one for the formal nights, the relaxing, and having every amenity at your beck and call. I’d never been to a cruise before. So I had very little idea what to expect.
Stages was a part of the Floating Festivals on Royal Caribbean. We spent four nights on the Navigator of the Seas in mid-October 2018.
It turns out it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
Day One (Stages – the musical theatre cruise festival begins)
Check in at Southampton was a breeze. After having your passport and information checked like any other holiday, you’re given a card. This card, colored to designate what shows you can see and what time you have dinner, is your ticket to everything on board.
And like entering through a Stargate, you’re immediately in a different world.
Musical theatre tunes are pumped through the stereo, smiles start lighting up people’s faces, and shoulders relax.
Waiters were waiting with trays of glasses full to the brim with champagne for arriving guests in the main promenade of the boat. This is where you’ll find restaurants, shops and bars all lit up like its permanent twilight.
We immediately went to explore. Because we had a drinks package, all we had to do is hand over our cards to receive a welcome cocktail. This drink, especially made for the boat, was a cross between a Sex on the Beach and a Screwdriver. It was called Lights Up (they were all musical theatre-themed, of course). This orange concoction was the perfect accompaniment as we relaxed on the pool deck, the sun peeking out of dark clouds, as we said sayonara to Southampton.
Next was the room. While the cabins can feel a little small, it had a sea view and felt absolutely serviceable. You’re not really supposed to stay in the room much on a festival.
Watching the sun set on the sea’s horizon felt a little magical. I can’t lie. Yes, it was cheesy and romantic. But I was getting into it.
Evening came and we then got ready for dinner. Now the majority of the dinners take place in the Sapphire Dining Room, what can only be described as a ‘majestic ballroom’. Imagine if the castle in Beauty and the Beast was a deluxe hotel, and you’d still probably not fathom how many chandeliers are in one place.
The menu changes every day but the majority of it is standard internationally-friendly fare. Don’t expect anything too spicy or adventurous. You can’t complain about standard dishes done well.
But, really, the draw of the cruise is entertainment.
First off was John Owen-Jones, a Welsh singer known for his starring performances in Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.
As you might expect, his voice is made for soaring melodies and belting to the very back of the theatre.
But he was just an aperitif for Beverley Knight, who gave a masterclass in performing. Her voice was fantastic, mesmerising, and feels like it can handle nearly any genre.
I was blown away. She sang Memory from Cats, Natural Woman to pay tribute to Aretha Franklin, and many Motown classics. If she’s ever near you performing, go and see her.
But the night wasn’t over yet. Kerry Ellis, who was Elphaba in the West End, was a late addition to the festival after Wizard of Oz star Sophie Evans fell ill. This might’ve been the first, but it wasn’t the last change to the schedule.
But what a replacement! She expertly sang her way through Wicked, as well as her from her time in We Will Rock You, among other musical theatre classics.
Day Two (At Sea)
But then it all came crashing down. So I’ve never been exactly the strongest on my feet. I’ve never roller-bladed, ice-skated, or skate-boarded in my life. So somehow when I was offered the chance to go on a surfing machine, I probably should have thought ahead to how it would go.
The Flow Rider sits on the top deck, a slanted machine that shoots out 30mph waves at you. You attempt to stand on a small board and surf. I say attempt because the amount of time I lasted can be counted in milliseconds.
Opting to go for a safer activity next, we went for a round of mini golf. And considering I hadn’t played since a young kid, I didn’t do too badly. It seems like I’m probably better more suited for handling a putter and balls than dealing with the waves.
But it was soon back to musical theatre. Beverley Knight had a Q&A where she spoke about her transition from pop music to musical theatre.
Next was Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Imagine going to an improv show put on by several musical theatre fans and witty comedians, and you’re about halfway there to fully realising how charming this show is.
In an hour, the compere walks out on stage and asks for a location. Unsurprising for a crowd that started day drinking early, the choice was an Ann Summers shop. With a number of musicals and composers (like Cabaret, Hamilton and Rodgers and Hammerstein) chosen from the crowd, the cast is so skilled at coming up with comedic musical songs on the fly.
The chaotic magic of the show is part of its charm. The group sings to West End and Broadway standard. And while you might feel sorry for them when Hamilton with its fast-paced raps and carefully crafted rhymes is picked, they do the best that anyone could do.
Kerry Ellis returned in a more sparkly dress for that evening’s show. This time, with her band, she was able to do more than what she is known for. But even though this was more ‘her’, I have to admit I preferred the acoustic show more.
Lee Mead followed, best known for starring as Joseph after winning the role on a BBC show. He has a beautiful velvety voice when singing but mumbles terribly when he talks. I wondered whether he was attempting to go for a bumbling Hugh Grant persona on stage, but I would tell him he still needs to be audible when doing that.
It was actually the dinner that I loved the most that evening. When you go on a cruise, for me, I equate those with formal nights. We got dressed up in our tuxes and had a beautiful Italian meal at Giovanni’s Table.
A Phantom of the Opera-themed Masquerade ball followed. I wish I could tell you what happened, but all I can tell you it was a very fun evening.
Day Three (Amsterdam)
Morning and we were in Amsterdam. We chose not to do one of the variety of excursions available as we know Amsterdam so well. Many people returned back saying they loved the boat tour.
But for us, we indulged ourselves with a coffee at the five-star hotel Krasnapolsky. Overlooking Dam Square, we relaxed in the taste of luxury.
Next was the Van Gogh museum. A lot of myth surrounds the 19th century painter. What I especially loved, other than seeing many famous works, was the museum’s dedication to presenting Van Gogh’s mental health fairly and accurately.
Be sure to check out Van Gogh Dreams, an immersive installation intending to give the experiencer a sensory feel for what it was like to be the painter.
After a stroopwafel and a trip to the tulip market, I couldn’t resist going to my favorite bar in Amsterdam: Wynand Fockink. It’s the best place to sample Dutch gin, or jenever. Be sure to ask the very helpful gay bartender about what of the dozens of types to try. He’ll definitely help you out.
Because we had such a full day in Amsterdam, the evening was a lot more relaxed.
We enjoyed an intimate show with Christina Biano – a musical impressionist known for her take on the ‘divas’. Very funny, very talented, and definitely worth seeing.
Instead of fighting with the hordes to see Michael Ball, we instead saw him bring joy to many people’s hearts from the comfort of our TV screen. That’s another fantastic thing about the ship. If you can’t make a show, the theatre is screened live so you don’t miss out.
Another three-course dinner followed in the Sapphire Dining Room. We then had cocktails in the Cosmopolitan Club, chatting with many of the stars that had finished their performances for the week.
Day Four (At Sea and Back Home)
As the ship made its way back to Southampton, we decided to have a fairly relaxed day. I had a massage in the ship’s spa – very relaxing and chilled.
What I especially liked is that many spas can feel like you’re stuck in a sales pitch. I felt the masseurs were very easy at listening, engaging, and knowing how best to work with their clients.
We swam a little in the many pools on the Navigator of the Seas. What’s cool about the pools is that all the water comes from the sea, and then filtered. It means you’re swimming in very fresh, but very cold (if it’s from the English Channel).
But we weren’t too far away from some more musical theatre gems.
We went to a talk with Don Black, the world-famous lyricist. He has provided lyrics for Bond films, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Michael Jackson. This was just one instance of performers from other shows (like Lee Mead) coming on stage for a one-off song. It gives the whole festival a family feel, like everyone is ready to help out at any moment.
Marti Webb, legendary West End actress, was a surprise act. She performed, of course, Tell Me On A Sunday.
Collabro, the winners of Britain’s Got Talent in 2014, was the final headline act.
This classical-crossover group may look like Instagram pretty boys, but they’ve got the vocals to back it up. Unlike other acts, which ventured outside musical theatre, Collabro lived in the genre.
With a variety of songs from their many albums, the audience lapped it all up. I also liked their charm and boyish humour, all while complimenting that with beautiful renditions of classic songs.
For one final number, a choir of cruise-goers joined the boys on stage. While some looked nervous, most lapped up their moment in their spotlight like it was needed nectar.
In that moment, it felt like every person had their chance of being a musical theatre star. Their dream fulfilled. And it wasn’t corny at all, it was wonderful.
We left the cruise early the next day, back in bleary Blighty, like Dorothy returning back to a world of sepia.
But it wasn’t a dream. It was a real place.
If you ever want to take a trip to musical theatre nirvana, you don’t need a hurricane or some magic shoes. It’s right there waiting for you.
Stages 2019 will take place on 14-19 October. Stars like Alfie Boe, Sheridan Smith and Collabro are scheduled to appear.
The four-night roundtrip from Southampton onboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas will visit Dublin.
More info on the Floating Festivals website.