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Behind The Stage
It's Show Time! Aboard Holland America Line

by Linda Coffman

October 2009 As a passenger, I've enjoyed the entertainment aboard many cruise ships, most recently while sailing to Alaska on Holland America Line's ms Westerdam.

As a former dance student, I appreciate creative choreography and the talent it takes for dancers to perform intricate steps on a moving stage. How do they do that?

For the 14-member cast consisting of lead singers, singer-dancers, and dancers aboard a Holland America Line ship, it all starts at Stiletto Entertainment, an international entertainment production company based in Los Angeles. After the casting call goes out, auditions are held in cities worldwide. The cast assembles in Los Angeles and rehearsals take place for a month to six weeks.

Each Holland America Line ship has two production shows, one of them unique to that vessel. Aboard Westerdam in Alaska, the productions were a Broadway-style show "Grand Tour" and a movie musical concert "Stage & Screen" (my favorite). With costumes created by Bob Mackie (who has designed for such notable entertainers as Cher, Tina Turner, Liza Minnelli, and even Oprah), the "Stage & Screen" show follows the theme suggested in the title—music from the Broadway stage and Hollywood screen. The familiar tunes are comfortable favorites presented with a fresh twist and costume changes too numerous to count.

In order to discover how they do that, we went behind the stage afterward to find out.

Lights, Music, Curtain
The mix of lights and sound is entirely computerized and the nerve center of it all is tucked into a corner of the stage hidden from view by the curtain. In addition to props and scenery, stage technicians busily handle the curtains and lifts in Westerdam's $12 million dollar theater. While 750 passengers are comfortably seated out front, on stage the techs control five computerized liftsfour that retract to the deck below and a turntable. The entire crew of technicians is certified to safely handle pyrotechnics.

Worst case scenario during a show? Just like shoreside—a computer crash! There are other hazards at sea as well. In rough weather when the stage moves in unpredictable ways, physical lifts are removed from the choreography, the dancers wear flat shoes, and some stage lifts are also eliminated to avoid injury. In the case of really rough seas, a show may be cancelled or postponed.

While music is all pre-taped, the singers utilize live microphones and the only time there is lip-synching is when a singer has a sore throat. For those rare instances, they have prepared a "sick" track of their own voice and the show goes on. In the event that a dancer suffers an injury and cannot appear, the remaining troupe members reblock their positions to fill in the missing performer's spot on stage. Cast members average six months working together on board and the shows appear seamless.

Further Behind the Curtain
The real surprise back stage is the dressing rooms. Cast members utilize two spaces (one for women, the other for men) that are no larger than many modern master bathrooms.

In those tight spaces, singers and dancers set out costumes, shoes, and wigs and are assisted with lightning fast changes between numbers by eight Indonesian "dressers" from the Westerdam's laundry crew.

While the Dance Captain is responsible for assuring that productions shows run smoothly, and one cast member is ultimately in charge of costumes (the dress worn by the lead singer for "Over The Rainbow" is valued at $10,000), it's those essential "dressers" who make sure the performers arrive on stage with snaps snapped, hooks hooked, and shoes buckled. Wardrobe malfunctions are rare.

Months of preparation and rehearsals have taken place for your enjoyment, so take a seat and relax. It's Show Time!

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