Theatre cruises used to be a perennial of the travel market. One of the most prominent remaining such cruises Theatre Guild's bi- annual Theatre At Sea luxury liner cruises.
The Theatre Guild? That's right. Except for a brief return to producing theatre with the 1995 tour and 1996 Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's State Fair, the Guild, once one of Broadway's most proflic production companies, has been producing stage shows not for Broadway but at sea since 1977.
Theatre At Sea will celebrate its 20th anniversary when it sets sail July 14 on the Royal Olympic for two weeks of exotic ports in the Aegean and Black Seas with Jean Stapleton, Patricia Neal, Leslie Uggams, Howard McGillin, and John Davidson -- not to mention dozens of "backstage" personnel -- aboard to entertain in readings, musical sketches, cabaret and a premiere.
Passengers and stars set sail from Piraeus, Greece, and will visit such ports of call as Mykonos, Istanbul, Odessa in the Ukraine, Alexandria, Ashdod for an excursion into Jerusalem and Santorini by day. At night while sailing, the 120 passengers specifically booked by the Guild get priority seating for an evening of Broadway entertainment.
On this cruise, as has happened several times, there'll be a tryout of a new play. Stapleton will present a world premiere "pre-Broadway" preview of Eleanor, a one-woman show about the former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, that will be directed by John Tillinger, who on another evening will perform in a play reading. Neal will perform scenes from Broadway plays with an assist from singer/actor/writer Joel Vig, who's best known for his role as the agent in the Off-Broadway musical Ruthless. Uggams and Davidson (with his guitar and banjo) will, naturally, sing. McGillin, along with Bryon Nease, will perform scenes from Leading Men Don't Dance, a tribute to the stars of Broadway's Golden Age, which was recently presented with an additional two performers at New York's Rainbow and Stars nightclub.
This is Neal's 11th Theatre At Sea. "I look forward to the cruises," said Neal, "not only for the perfect vacation but also for the opportunity to see old friends, many of them from the theatre, and to get to know them better."
The cruises have "starred" some stellar leading ladies and men, such as Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, Colleen Dewhurst, Larry Kert, and George Rose. The last four Theatre At Sea cruises boasted such names as Zoe Caldwell, Sandy Duncan, Ben Gazzara, George Hearn, Judy Kaye, Richard Kiley, Eartha Kitt, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, James Whitmore, Donna McKechnie, Roddy McDowall, and Dana Ivey.
Marilyn and Phillip Langner (his father founded the Theatre Guild), who run Theatre At Sea through the Theatre Guild, have a Florida warehouse where they keep ten set drops which are used on the various cruises. The Langners explained that in addition to getting deluxe accommodations for themselves and a companion, the stars receive an honorarium to cover expenses. For this, they are required to present one evening's entertainment for passengers and are invited to join in the "all-star gala," usually the night before the final port.
Vig, who will be embarking on his 25th Theatre At Sea cruise on the 14th, said "Forget the navy. Join the Theatre Guild and see the world! It's been the greatest way to see the world and mix with some of theatre's greatest luminaries. I love to travel but I hate the business of travel -- packing, lugging suitcases from airports and trains to taxis, the fear of getting lost in strange cities. Onboard ship, however, it becomes your hotel. You unpack once and wake up every morning at a glorious new destination."
However, Vig says, it's not all fun and games. Though he's been able to use his time at sea to write and polish his scripts, "the shows require preparation . . . I work with the stars when their evening calls for another actor and I help with their props."
The latter can be a daunting task when an actor forgets to bring along what's required. "You never appreciate New York City as much as when you're in, say, Istanbul at noon trying to find a tutu, feathered fan, or carnival mask."
On a recent cruise, Anne Jackson decided at the last minute to do a scene from The Madwoman of Chaillot. There was a problem, however. She didn't have a "mad" dress. "There we were in Egypt," said Vig, "looking for the right dress. I ended up buying three dresses for her and with a lot of help from the crew we made them into one 'madwoman' dress -- in less than 24 hours."
The next Theatre At Sea sailing will be in December with ports of call in South America. This routing gives the stars the opportunity to perform at the end of an excursion on the Amazon, at Manaus, Brazil's famed opera house. For information on the Theatre At Sea packages, call (800) 752-9732.
-- By Ellis Nassour