It is a few minutes before 8:45 p.m. on board RCI's Grandeur of the Seas, and the Palladium Theatre is filling up rapidly. Even in a dormant state, the Palladium is one of the most striking theatres afloat. Gone are the lounge-style sofas and tables in the theatres on the Sovereign-class ships, replaced by comfortable individual seats, each with a drink holder, laid out in curved rows so that every seat faces center stage. Two balcony sections -- left and right -- contain more rows of seats facing the stage, with a mezzanine rising behind the orchestra seats one full deck up to the balcony level. In back of the last mezzanine row is a wall of glass, behind which is located the lighting booth, with the computerized light board and two unlit spotlights barely visible through the glass. Three banks of flood lights emerge from the House ceiling, with a large cluster of stage lights visible behind illuminated ornamental House lights above the area in front of the stage. At the rear of the orchestra section is the sound booth, where a technician is busy checking an impressive array of technology. There is an attractive chandelier overhead, but most eyes come to rest on a multi-colored curtain, with larger-than-lifesized images of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, and other notables from the world of show business. In the lowered pit directly in front of the stage, the orchestra can be heard warming up.
At 8:45 the sounds from the pit fall silent as the House lights dim to black. Out of the darkness a voice, spoken in much the same style as Ed McMahon introducing Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, announces, "It's...showtime!" The theatre comes to life: the orchestra blares, the curtain rises, many varieties of lights flash from every direction, singers and dancers costumed in sequins and multi-colors appear on stage, and the audience is presented with a dazzling combination of technology and talent that is almost beyond comprehension.
This is the domain of Cy Peck, Production Manager aboard Grandeur of the Seas. A native of Vancouver, Cy came to Royal Caribbean International with 15 years experience performing and, after attending one of the top theatre schools in Canada, he spent several years managing small theatres there. The combined training and experience in stagecraft gave Cy the unique technical and managerial skills required of a production manager aboard a cruise ship. But his first job with RCI was as a stagehand.
"I was running a theatre in Toronto. I wasn't making a lot of money doing that. I was approached by a friend of mine who said Royal Caribbean's hiring, and I talked to the hiring agent [in Vancouver], and she said, well, there are no production jobs available, come in as stage staff and we'll send you to a set-up."
He went to France to help set up the theatre on Rhapsody of the Seas. He was involved in loading all the lighting and sets for the first two RCI-produced shows on the new ship. It gave Cy the opportunity to "see what it was like from the ground up, see if I wanted to stay with the company."
As Production Manager aboard the Grandeur, Cy oversees virtually all the onboard entertainment operations, which is saying a mouthful. He is responsible for the facilities -- principally the $42 million Palladium Theatre, but also the ship's other entertainment venues, including the South Pacific Lounge, with its high-tech stage, dance floor, lighting, and control booth, and the equally state-of-the-art Viking Crown Lounge disco. He also oversees the entertainers (other than the cruise staff), including the 12-member song and dance ensemble known on each RCI ship as the Wave Revue, and four bands (a steel drum calypso band that plays poolside daily, a string trio that performs in the Centrum lobby and strolls through the dining room at formal dinners, a rock-style band that assumes various iterations from country and western to 1960's rock and roll and performs mainly in the South Pacific Lounge, and of course the 11-piece orchestra that performs in the Palladium for the nightly shows). There are two cocktail pianists, two disc jockeys, and a vocalist with her back-up (the Laura Farrow Trio) who perform at night in the Centrum lobby.
Cy is also responsible for dealing with the celebrity performers, including everything from managing their rehearsals and performances to ensuring that they and their belongings get on and off the ship without a hitch. He also oversees the video operations on the Grandeur, which include two video programmers and more technical equipment. In coordinating these activities, Cy works closely with and oversees the Musical Director (M.D.), the Wave Revue dance captain, and the chief video programmer. He is directly responsible for the technical staff (four stagehands, a lighting technician, a sound technician, and two spot light operators), and he reports directly to the Cruise Director.
"The Cruise Director has regular meetings with senior staff every week, and I also have a tech meeting every Friday. I have a dancer meeting every Tuesday and I meet with the M.D. and the band - the leaders of each band on the ship. We have a meeting ourselves; the M.D. basically deals with the orchestra himself."
The range and depth of his on-board responsibilities dwarfs even his shoreside work in small theatres. "I cover so many people," he acknowledged. "In normal theatres I'd just be a stage manager; I'd just take care of the stage, the cast, the techs." He is especially proud of the four stagehands.
"They are basically the backbone of the entire entertainment department. These are the guys who basically do all the stage work, move the sets on and move them off, move the curtains. These four guys work very, very hard. They're not just stagehands; they're actually assistants to a lot of the cruise staff departments here."
The pride and joy of the Production Manager -- and the place where he devotes his greatest effort -- is the Broadway-like, state-of-the-art Palladium Theatre. The facility is equipped with virtually unlimited technical capabilities that, before the Vision-class RCI ships went into operation, had not been imagined, let alone established, on a cruise ship.
As impressive as the physical layout of the theatre is, it is the multi-million dollar array of technology that makes the Palladium special. The lighting package features 14 overhead lasers known as robo-scans. These lights are attached to mirrors and each can be programmed to move independently, covering different portions of the stage, or they can home in on sensors attached to the costumes of specific performers so that the performers can be followed by short-distance intense lighting (as compared with the long-distance, manually operated follow spots). These robo-scans can also be programmed to focus moving images on the stage or virtually anywhere in the theatre. "They [the robo-scans] present images, as well as different colors," Cy explained. "The computer does the whole thing." The tech package also has a full array of more traditional special effects, such as black light, strobes, multi-colored lasers, smoke and fire machines, as well as flashers that create the effect of an explosion.
The Palladium's sound system is equally state-of-the-art and impressive. The sound board has 40 channels, and although it seems inconceivable, many of RCI's shows use most of these channels. In addition to the traditional hand-held cordless microphones used by visiting celebrities and the cruise staff, the four singers in the Wave Revue use the "Madonna-style" headset microphones first used on Broadway by the cast of Rent. The Palladium is also equipped with "Surround-Sound," with special speakers strategically located throughout the theatre.
On stage there are tracks on which sets can be automatically moved on and off. There are also risers that can be elevated or lowered, again according to a computerized program, to various heights and at different times during a performance. One member of the Wave Revue remarked that "this stage would rival anything that you would find on Broadway - anything!"
Cy gave me an extensive tour of the Palladium's three-level backstage area, beginning with the stage manager's station at the balcony level, stage right [in theatre parlance, this means the right side from the actor's view, facing the audience]. Perched above the stage, the station is situated so that one can see through the wings onto the stage. There is a table with two key pads, headsets, a sound monitor, and four separate video monitors so that the stage manager can see and hear virtually anything that is going on related to the show onstage or off, and communicate with the tech staff. One of the monitors tracks the status of the computerized show program that generally is run on a laser disc in the lighting booth, and can be used in "run program" or "simulation" mode (to test or demonstrate to a guest, such as I). A second monitor indicates the status of such things as curtains, risers, and other movable components of the stage so the stage manager can verify that everyting is in the right place. A third monitor shows each of the lighting cues as plotted in the program; this is essentially for the information of the stage manager, as the cues are controlled in the lighting booth. The fourth monitor is a video camera shot of the stage, so the stage manager can watch the show and see what the audience sees. The theatre is equipped with an infrared camera so the stage manager can see the stage during blackouts to monitor scene changes. Finally, there is a microphone on the table so the stage manager - in this case Cy himself - can do his best Ed McMahon impression at the opening of each show.
A quick tour of the rest of the backstage area reveals a room on each side at the stage level for quick costume changes and storage of costumes, sets, and props. There is a passageway between stage right and stage left that is considerably wider than its counterpart on the Sovereign-class ships. One deck below the stage are the main dressing rooms, with much more space and more costumes hanging on racks. Here is also where Cy has his office, which is not much more than a desk with a computer, printer, and bookshelf. There is a portable stereo on the bookshelf. During the ten minutes I was back there, two members of the Wave Revue went in and out, and another was seated at one of the dressing tables, sewing a costume. Cy explained that "two cast members are always designated as costumers," and another serves as dance captain. "If you take each dancer," he said, "each costume change that they have, there are 80 to 100 costume changes made for each show." He also explained the basis for scheduling activities in the Palladium. "The ship is revenue driven, so these rooms [the Palladium and South Pacific Lounge] are used for port lectures, shore excursion talks, for all sorts of different things...We'll have the same stuff in here week to week and I can schedule other things, like celebrity rehearsals."
While we were backstage and chatting, Cy was preparing for the day's taping of the Grandeur Today show. This half-hour videotaped program is "an information show telling people what's happening," Cy stated. As far as either Cy or I know, this program is unique among the RCI fleet. "We have four shows each week," he said. "It's very much up to the Cruise Director as far as the running order and what happens in those shows." The program is primarily in talk show or interview format, which lends itself to one of Cruise Director Jeff Martin's strengths. It includes "commercial breaks," just like network television. [Guess who sponsors this show?] The show is aired repeatedly for a day on one of the Grandeur's closed-circuit television channels, so that people can view it late at night and not have to give up activity time. Througout the week, I noted that the setting for the videotaping changed.
On this morning, the Palladium stage was used as the set for the taping of the Grandeur Today show. By coincidence, one segment was devoted to the making of a Wave Revue production. Cruise Director Jeff Martin interviewed two members of the Wave Revue cast. A third member of the cast served as the videographer for the taping. The interviewees discussed their background and then gave a preview of the next night's major production, Star Struck. The segment included a short video presentation tracing the making of the production from the hiring of the Wave Revue casts through the staging of the production, rehearsals, and performance.
Earlier, Cy had explained that there are two Wave Revue productions on each cruise, one to go with a "guest" variety act, the other a full-show production. Performers are recruited primarily through "cattle call" auditions in major cities throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. The casts are put together - always four singers (two men, two women) and eight dancers - for each ship. "They'll be in Miami for about a month to a month and a half, " Cy said, "in rehearsals." Casts of different ships rotate so there may be two to four casts rehearsing new productions at any given time under the auspices of RCI's Entertainment Operations Department. Cy also explained that each show comes with a laser disc created by a contractor that contains the programmed tech cues. The discs are programmed to be compatible with the technology capabilities of the theatre of a particular ship. Cy and his tech crew load the programs and then they set the lights and other equipment according to the specifications of the program. Cy noted that "these shows will run for three years and then be taken off." Each ship will always have several shows loaded at any given time, so that the same two shows are not run for the full three years.
Following the videotaping of Grandeur Today, Cy filled me in on the remaining components of an RCI Wave Revue production. He noted that the cruise line spares no expense in striving for the best result in all phases of the production. Most of the shows had a mixed-media component, in which video tape is shown on the overhead screens while the performers are doing their thing live on stage. There is a click track to enhance the music played live by the orchestra. The productions make use of voice-overs to provide vocal backup to the singers, and sound tracks - pre-recorded vocals - for the dancers to lip sync, to give the appearance that everyone on stage is singing. "Dancers are lip syncing; unless you see a mic on them, they have to lip sync," Cy explained. These techniques require not only sophisticated technology but the best skills in timing the music. Several members of the orchestra wear headsets to coordinate with the click track, but the singers must rely on the stage monitors and their own timing to make it all work.
At the conclusion of our interview, I asked Cy how RCI's entertainment compares with the other cruise lines. He baldly stated that Royal Caribbean is the best when it comes to live entertainment. "What separates it [RCI] from other cruise lines," he said, "is we have our celebrity entertainer program. We get some big, big names." He proceeded to list an impressive group of singers, including Frankie Avalon, the Platters, the Association, and especially top comedians, such as Kelly Montieth, who "has been on Letterman and the Tonight Show so many times."
If the celebrities who performed the week of my cruise are any indication, Cy was not exaggerating. One personality, Tony Tillman, who Cy characterized as "a phenomenal performer," brought the house down twice in one night with his song/dance/comedy act, very much reminiscent - not unintentionally - of Sammy Davis Jr. I enjoyed his first show so much, I did something I never do: I came back for the second show, expecting it to be the same, and much of it was - but some of it was different, ad-libbed with the orchestra apparently on the spot. When I asked Cy how RCI gets top celebrities week after week, he replied simply: "we pay them a lot of money."
It isn't only money, the willingness to spare no expense to put on a top show, that makes the live entertainment aboard the Grandeur unique, but a drive for excellence that permeates everyone involved in the entertainment program aboard the ship. Cy invited me back that evening to watch the passenger talent show from his stage manager's station. When Cy introduced Cruise Director Jeff Martin to open the show, some canned background music that had been playing in the House prior to the show had not gone off when Jeff came on stage. There was a moment when he had to ask the sound technician on a live mic to turn off the music. Instantly, the music came down, but as soon as Jeff came off stage after introducing the first performer, he expressed his displeasure to Cy, who already had been on the headset with the sound technician inquiring what had gone wrong. Such minor technical errors - whether human or mechanical - are a part of show business. But on the Grandeur there is no such thing as a minor technical error.
The next night when the Wave Revue put on their major production, Star Struck, there were no apparent glitches. The show consisted of one familiar tune after another that had the audience practically singing along, and it incorporated every technological component available in the Palladium Theatre. The orchestra, enhanced by the click track, played; the singers, backed up by voice-overs, sang; the dancers danced, and thanks to the sound track and perfectly timed lip sync, appeared to sing, too; the stage and video screens came alive with perfectly coordinated numbers; the lasers and robo-scans and the "Surround Sound" ensured that every aspect of the performance touched every nook and corner of the Palladium. For an hour the music and singing and dancing and technology continued nonstop. And when it was all over and the house lights came up, a thousand people were on their feet cheering.
Showtime on the High Seas - on RCI's Grandeur of the Seas - is more than just another activity. It's a unique experience that touches all the senses, making your heart soar and your voice beg for more. Isn't that what entertainment on a cruise ought to be?
David Herschler, who is a historian with the U.S. Department of State, is a past contributor to the Sealetter. As you can tell, he has a special interest in entertainment, and currently is president of The Musical Theater Center, an organization that provides training in the musical theater disciplines in the Washington D.C. area, and which sponsors two highly talented performing ensembles, including a teen group, Young Americans of Washington, which performed on the main stage of RCI's Sovereign of the Seas last summer.
David and the SeaLetter wish to thank Cy Peck for giving him an inside look at the Grandeur of the Seas entertainment program, and for his gracious contribution of time and knowledge, without which this article could not have been written.
David can be reached for questions or comment at: email@example.com.
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