NEW YORK • Somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean, a painter seeks to find his muse in an original new show: It involves flying bicycles, a beatbox musician and acrobats hanging from silks and ladders. If the show sounds Cirque du Soleil-ish, it is.
The Montreal-based troupe just launched its first at-sea extravaganza, complete with the option of a pre-show dinner, on-board the new 4,500-passenger MSC Meraviglia.
When the 2,908-passenger Celebrity Edge is launched next year, it will feature an interactive spectacle created with producers of off-Broadway's experiential Queen Of The Night dinner theatre. The restaurant where it will be performed nightly has been designed to evoke the Garden of Eden and when diners enter, actors called "Edenists" will whisper mysterious, scene-setting phrases into their ears before vocalists, acrobats and dancers take the stage.
As ever-bigger cruise ships mean that a more diverse crowd is lining up to be entertained, the world of cruise-ship performing arts is evolving. It turns out entertainment can be a key factor when it comes to acquiring and retaining customers among the competitive cruise-line set - and people love to be surprised.
In the expanding industry, executives are also betting passengers will even be willing to pay for premium shows, such as the Eden event, unlocking a potential new revenue stream.
This is not to say the days of bland Broadway revues, cheesy dance numbers and uninspired magic acts are totally over. But serious competition from new creators is recasting the way cruisers think about entertainment at sea.
"We need more venues for more tastes, age groups and nationalities," said Mr Gary Glading, head of entertainment and guest experiences for MSC Cruises.
So in addition to its line-up of 45-minute themed variety shows - which feature singers, dancers, and sword swallowers - MSC has invested US$22 million (S$S$30 million) to create a theatre for Cirque du Soleil on the high-tech Meraviglia. (It is the first of four MSC ships to develop such a space.)
The 413-seat entertainment and dining lounge is custom-designed with intricate rigging for aerial acts - hallmarks of the two Cirque shows that are now playing on the ship six days a week.
On its new 4,140-passenger MSC Seaside, which will make its debut out of Miami in December, MSC is also testing improvisational comedy shows by Toronto-based troupe BeerProv.
"People are looking for something that's different, that's not the same beige product everyone else is turning out," Mr Glading said.
On their latest and largest ships, both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have been replacing revues with more relevant options. Some are slightly shortened versions of Broadway musicals - a little trip to the Great White Way in the middle of the great blue sea. They include classics such as Grease and Saturday Night Fever on Royal Caribbean, or more recent hits such as Rock Of Ages and After Midnight on Norwegian.
The shows of yesteryear barely even had a storyline; these have dialogue, upgraded costumes and proper sets, just like their land-based counterparts. Some even feature members of the New York casts and production teams.
Celebrity, Royal Caribbean's sister brand, is focusing on original productions, some with aerial acrobatics and high-tech effects - already, it has 18 such shows in its line-up.
Elyria is its most daring: It is a slightly risque, avant-garde love story with choreography by industry veterans who have worked with singers Madonna and Kylie Minogue. The show was launched in 2015 on Celebrity Constellation and was an immediate hit.
And then there is Edge, which hopes to push the boundaries when it is launched in December next year. With interactive elements reminiscent of the immersive theatre phenomenon Sleep No More, the show will be different each time guests go.
That is an industry first, according to Ms Becky Thomson-Foley, Celebrity's associate vice-president of entertainment. People might go several times during a trip.
Shipboard stage experiences are translating to quarterly earnings.
For starters, some of the new entertainment comes with an extra price tag for guests, unlocking a new revenue stream. MSC's Cirque shows are US$42 with dinner, US$18 without. Celebrity's Eden show will also come with a cost, which has yet to be determined.
At Norwegian, which first introduced a dinner theatre circus (created by Florida-based Cirque Productions) in 2010, the profits are obvious. The theatre on Norwegian Breakaway, one of three ships with the show, holds 245; with nine shows a week at US$39.99 (including dinner), performance revenue on that ship alone can hit US$4.5 million a year.
The better cruise ship entertainment gets, the more seriously the theatre industry is taking it. "Back in the day, cruise ship entertainment was just below accordion players. There was no respect," said Norwegian's vice-president of entertainment Richard Ambrose.
When he started in the business a decade ago, producers would not even return his calls. Now they are calling him about their Broadway and West End debuts, hoping to collect franchise fees for road productions at sea (where shows are likely to be performed for years).
Some New York City shows may soon get their starts at sea. The original, Cuban-themed musical being developed for Norwegian Bliss by Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Warren Carlyle (After Midnight), for instance, is attracting interest by land-based producers.
So how did cruise shows get so good? The short answer is money. Cruise companies are investing in talent and striking partnerships with award-winning directors, choreographers, costumers, and set makers.
They are also investing in rehearsal facilities that would make land-based professionals weep: Rather than practising in conference rooms at motels, as they once did, cruise actors now have state-of-the-art spaces, such as a US$32-million studio that Royal Caribbean opened in south Florida in 2015.
The contracts that guarantee eight to 10 months of employment? They are icing on the cake.