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Onboard entertainment is shipshape

Cruise lines invest millions to lure the vacation dollars of potential passengers from land-based resorts. A significant onboard attraction is the polished, blockbuster stage shows that can have a life of six months or more.

Each of the big-ship lines tries for state-of-the-art sound and lighting; rotating stages and even portions that rise or descend are becoming more common.

And the performers themselves are often terrifically talented.

Carnival, the largest of the lines, staked its early reputation on cheap prices and near-constant merriment. Roger Blum, Carnival's vice president of cruise programming, says, "From the beginning, our entertainment is what set Carnival apart from the rest of the industry." Often, it still does.

When I stepped backstage on the Carnival Spirit to check out a production, I learned that creating those spectaculars is a lengthy effort calibrated and coordinated, sometimes, to a 30th of a second.

A note for noncruisers. The typical major musical revue might have up to 18 dancers and singers on stage who quickly switch from, say, a set piece from Guys and Dolls to high kicks on the wings of a life-sized World War I-era biplane.

These productions, with their rapid costume and set changes, should appear seamless. The effort to get there, however, is demanding.

The ingredients for the wizardry come together as much as a year before the curtain lifts on the major, 55-minute, production shows. First, a team is created that includes a costume designer, scenic designer, musical director, overall director, choreographer, special effects, lighting and technical designer and a producer.

"We start by asking what type of show do we want," says production show manager Kerry Stables. The creative team wanted something that related to the ship's name; they came up with High Spirits, which explores the notion of spirit, from ghosts to spirits of the sea.

One number _ representing the spirit of aviation _ has chorines in shiny, copper-colored jumpsuits, helmets, goggles and flowing neck scarves. First these women are seen dancing on the wings of a vintage airplane in flight _ they have been filmed, and the image is projected on a screen onstage. Then, the dancers transform from filmed image to live onstage.

In High Spirits, each dancer makes more than a dozen costume changes in less than an hour. These changes have gone from the drawing board to the hands of seamstresses, who stitched the costumes in Las Vegas in just weeks. The cost can be as much as $3,000 per ensemble.

Costumes must be glamorous as well as practical. In some cases, performers have just 30 seconds to make a clothing change. To accomplish this, cleverly layered costumes (with lots of Velcro) enable dancers to morph from, say, a dazzling gown in one scene into a diaphanous frock in the next. Hats may be instantly reversible; masks may substitute for makeup, and wigs are commonly changed during shows.

To facilitate quick changes, performers lay out their costumes backstage, piling one layer on another in the order they will don them. They hang hats on wall hooks along circuitous pathways to the stage.

Lighting helps create the illusions onstage and becomes, in effect, part of the scenery. In a sequence portraying a sinking ship, for instance, special effects _ programmed on 14 computers placed throughout the theater _ add just the right light, smoke effects, pyrotechnics and fog.

When costumes are complete and fitted, choreography begins in earnest _ typically with rehearsals in a shoreside studio. The goal: precision and pacing.

After months of preparation, the performers assume their practiced places behind the curtain. They usually count, aloud or to themselves, the traditional metronomic rhythm of a dancer _ five-six-seven-eight. Finally, the curtain rises.

To increase the lure of these entertainment extravaganzas, some cruise lines form partnerships with popular impresarios. Most recently, Celebrity Cruises announced it is bringing Cirque du Soleil to sea.

Beginning in December, a Cirque masquerade ball and performance will be presented on Constellation cruises and, starting in early 2005, on the Summit. To enhance the shows, the vessels' observation lounges are being transformed into a Cirque stage dubbed "The Bar at the Edge of the Earth."

For its foray to sea _ a first for Cirque, based in Montreal _ the creators customized its productions, translating the marvels of the big top to the small scale of a cruise ship cabaret.

Cirque will use themes of water, navigators and the sea to create a story line and mystical characters who will mingle with Celebrity's passengers during the day, throughout the ships.

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