Stages at Sea Festival (Musical Theatre Cruise)
Michael Davies hops on board the Navigator of the Seas to experience the UK's first ever musical theatre-themed cruise
Somebody somewhere had a stroke of genius. In the Venn diagrams of demographics, the overlap between cruise holiday enthusiasts and musical theatre fans must be immense. To combine the two seems, in hindsight, to be the most natural thing in the world.
That it has taken until 2018 for a 'floating festival' to be offered to the UK market is rather surprising. Themed cruises are commonplace in the United States, but the concept has never been tried before on this side of the pond. Inaugurated by a specially set-up company, the Stages cruise offered passengers five days of wall-to-wall musical theatre entertainment from some of the biggest names in the business, plus the bonus attraction of a shore excursion to Amsterdam after sailing from the home port of Southampton.
The Navigator of the Seas – the host vessel for this first ever enterprise – is big; more than big enough to cope with the varied demands of its captive audience. So while its main theatre, the Metropolis, scheduled a variety of headliners from Beverley Knight and Lee Mead to Collabro and Michael Ball, other smaller venues on board featured everything from Arlene Phillips' life story to close-up question and answer sessions with the stars. Coupled with this stellar line-up, the chance of running into Don Black in the cafe or turning a corner and bumping into West End Producer added a constant frisson of excitement and pleasure.
With such an array of West End royalty on display, it's hard to pick out the highlights. Inevitably, they are personal. Some of the moments that will stay in the memory include a stunning intimate set from Collabro, with simple piano accompaniment by their multi-talented MD Ed Rugman; an aspiring performer with Down's syndrome receiving advice from an inspirational Beverley Knight; barnstorming main-stage sets from a relentlessly charming Lee Mead, the dazzling Kerry Ellis and a full-voiced, funny John Owen-Jones; lift doors opening to reveal The Stowaway Pianist (Lawrence Michalowski) inside belting out singalong show tunes on a full-sized piano; Don Black divulging hilarious indiscretions about some of his many collaborators, with musical interludes from the likes of Marti Webb; and, of course, the infectious bundle of talent that is Michael Ball.
The organisers, Floating Festivals, have been the first to admit there were a few teething troubles to be smoothed out for next year but none of them took the edge off a rather extraordinary few days at sea. Whether first-time cruiser or seasoned veteran, there's no other environment I can think of that allows such friendly, fetter-free access to musical theatre performers of the highest quality. Like the best musicals, it's a genuinely engaging personal experience wrapped up in the glitz and glamour of spectacle and showmanship.
Stages will cruise to Dublin from Monday October 14 to Friday October 18, 2019. Acts already announced include Alfie Boe, Collabro and Sheridan Smith.