Heaven On A Ship
This year a record 28 million people will have their holiday on a cruise ship. Two Australian entrepreneurs are doing their bit to fuel the boom by leasing vessels and cramming them with top entertainment. David Spicer reports from the Bravo Cruise of the Performing Arts.
Boarding the Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas in Sydney – bound for New Caledonia and Vanuatu - I knew I would be offered plenty of high cholesterol food at the buffet, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the volume of high cholesterol entertainment.
Every night there was an A-list performer such as Todd McKenney or Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the main theatre.
During the day, and late at the night, other top-quality musicians would shine. Jazz musicians, opera singers, pianists and classical musicians were on the roster. No expense appeared to have been spared.
A young Australian baritone, Sam Roberts-Smith, was flown in especially for the cruise from Germany. The Celtic Tenors came over from Ireland.
At the centre of a ship is an open performing area, adjacent to glass lifts, which rises eight levels. Passengers sit on the balconies of the different floors listening to the music, which rises, like floating bubbles, to the top.
The co-owner of the Choose Your Cruise franchise is booking agent Marius Els.
“People pay a premium to come on board because the entertainment is world class,” says Marius.
“It is a bit of fantasy land. When people walk up a gang plank with 200 musicians and artists and they are locked away with them for seven days, they all get to meet and engage with them.”
Mixing with the stars is part of the charm. Todd McKenney joked that he felt more breasts during the trip than any time in his life.
That is breasts pushed into his back from fans cuddling him from behind, in the lifts.
There are also plenty of Zimmer frames in action. On board if you saw someone with grey hair, they were most likely a passenger. Those middle aged or younger (not part of the crew) were usually artists.
During Todd’s act, centred on the music of Peter Allen, he joked about members of the audience dying or having heart attacks during his past shows. He urged one elderly woman to keep her fluids up.
On our cruise everyone was in good spirits and disembarked in a vertical position.
Performing on the high seas, though, has its special challenges.
“We normally have lots of things on the pool deck. So, if it is rough and windy up there we have to move or cancel it,” said Marius Els.
“It is very challenging for the headline acts on the main stage. When you have an orchestra sitting down and the ship is moving fifteen degrees it is totally different to performing on dry land,” he said.
Tom Burlinson did not make it to the grand finale performance. He was confined to his cabin with the dreaded lurgy.
The crooner must not have paid attention to the regular advertisements on the in-house TV to wash your hands.
Turning up night after night was the incredible 30-piece Metropolitan Orchestra under the baton of Guy Noble – the true stars of the voyage.
They had to prepare for eight different one-hour concerts with demanding opera, music theatre and jazz-swing repertoire. The number of different pieces of music needed for orchestra members topped several thousand (a number similar to desserts prepared each day on the vessel).
The Choose Your Cruise business has now chartered 32 ships over seven years.
The ‘Rock the Boat’ cruise in 2019 – featuring Suzie Quatro – has already sold out.
Another popular regular is their country music voyage. This year’s Cruisin Groove featured six international Elvis Presley impersonators. (It was all a bit too much for the Captain of the Radiance of the Seas. He told us that seeing Elvis in speedos was a bridge too far.)
The original idea for a music festival at sea came from Mick Manov.
He was running an audio company in Adelaide, best known for techno dance parties and chartering small ships from Glenelg.
“My wife and I love cruising. There is no ship in the world that I don’t know. We were on a cruise from New York to the Caribbean when someone suggested I charter one.
“But chartering a ship is not like hiring a car. It is a nightmare.”
His first Blue Suede Cruise in 2010 had a 50s / 60s rock n roll theme. Within three months he said it was 90 percent booked.
Then he teamed up with Marius. He takes the multi-million-dollar risk in his stride.
“Sometimes hiring a ship can be way less risky than putting on a show at the Opera House,” said Marius.
“You just have to run the numbers. It is the same whether you build a house or book an international tour.”
The swashbuckling entrepreneurs have set their sights on the high seas away from the South Pacific.
This year they chartered a ship from England for a European Bravo cruise.
Eight Australian acts got to take part. One of them was the singer Mark Vincent.
“Originally we had him in a venue of one hundred and fifty,” said Marius.
“By the end of the cruise we had to put him in the main theatre at eleven o’clock at night. We had over thirteen hundred people and five hundred waiting to get in. That was an unknown guy from Australia.”
Now Mark Vincent has scored some impressive gigs in the UK - on dry land.
“Our goal is to expand into other territories.”
Outside of the United States they believe they are on the only themed entertainment cruise company.
The company prides itself on making the artists very comfortable.
“Our model is to get as many original recording artists as possible and give them a balcony cabin. We also allow them to bring their children and family.”
Marius said on other cruises artists are put on deck two, with no balcony and four bunks to a room.
The star acts score large suites. I interviewed a very jolly Todd McKenney in his room, which felt three times as large as a regular berth. It had a double bed, dining room, kitchen and couch.
“Bravo is amazing. It is a variety show on water. I enjoy see all my friends perform and the beautiful scenery. (However) I am also eating too much. I am turning into a loaf of bread.
“So, I do an hour at the gym at six o’clock. I call it playing it forward. I go from the gym to the buffet,”
The ship feels like a good fit for the music festival at sea. The Radiance of the Seas fits up to 2000 passengers, which is about half the capacity of the liner’s monster sister ship The Symphony of the Seas.
Getting a good seat at the main shows each night still requires early bird planning.
The next Bravo Performing Arts Cruise is from November 12, 2019.
The headline act is Welsh Bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel. He has both a booming voice, a jolly personality and has enjoyed performing in Australia before.
Music Theatre star Lucy Durack will be on board – surely with her gorgeous daughter. Other performers include James Morrison, Mark Vincent (with A Tribute to Mario Lanza), Jonathan Welch, Melinda Schneider (with her Doris Day show) and The Kermond Variety Show.
Destinations are New Caledonia and the Isle of Pines.
It will be another seven days of music heaven on a ship.
*David Spicer was a guest of Bravo Cruise of the Performing Arts. Pictures - Bravo at Circular Quay, Todd McKenney in his suite, the view from Mystery Island and at the bottom David Spicer with Rhonda Burchmore.