Crystal's Classy Entertainment

CruiseMates' readers have voted the entertainment aboard Crystal Cruise Lines' ships the best in the industry. Why is this so? We checked it out for ourselves on a 12-night Crystal Symphony Mediterranean voyage, and discovered that Crystal indeed cares a great deal about this aspect of the cruise experience.

Let's begin with Crystal's impressive production shows. Embellished with extravagant sets and costumes and carefully woven together with tasteful choreography, they were accompanied by well-written, powerful musical arrangements. As the nucleus of the ship's entertainment staff, the cast of dancers and singers presented the five spectaculars in a most professional way. (Footnote: We would have preferred one less production show in the 12 days. The fifth show had the effect of diminishing the overall specialty.)

It was obvious that Crystal spared no expense on the shows. When one compares this kind of production to other companies' "Las Vegas-type shows," the superiority of the Crystal presentations is clear. What also makes them better than most is the intimacy of the showroom. In many ways, it mimics the old supper club venue, with the audience ringing the stage, and the staging takes full advantage of this layout.

Crystal clearly takes great pains to make sure the type of entertainment aboard its ships is in synch with the preferences and demographics of its upscale passengers. From a classical pianist to a Broadway lead performer, the talent booker has taken into consideration the material most appreciated by Crystal's audience. On our cruise, there were no comedians or so-called novelty acts (jugglers, ventriloquists, magicians, etc.), but we were informed it was just the luck of the draw. Crystal doesn't use "off color" comedians, even at the late night lounge.

We spoke with Bret Bullock, Crystal's vice president of entertainment, who confirmed that the pattern of entertainment we experienced is a fairly constant template for the Symphony and the Harmony, with different shows from ship to ship. They will, of course, add and subtract acts as the cruises demand.

Bullock said demographics have the most to do with their entertainment decisions, as well as holidays. From our perspective, it is not always the amount of money a company spends that makes its shows better than another's. True, with its sizable budget, Crystal does have the means to spend a few more dollars on its shows. But equally important is the Crystal entertainment department's careful choices of writers, arrangers, choreographers and set designers for its shows. With an abundance of talented performers to audition and choose from, these professionals must cast, rehearse and deliver a finished product. Suffice it to say, Crystal appears to be getting what it is paying for.

Changing the performers on board is also a crucial aspect to keeping the ships' entertainment package fresh and alive. This applies to all of the entertainment staff, especially the cast of the production shows, who rotate four months on and two months off. With a third ship coming this summer, Crystal tells us its current policies will remain constant for the entire Crystal fleet, and may even include some surprises on the new Crystal Serenity.

Bullock said the Crystal Serenity's entertainment will be even more evolved. This means that the emphasis will be on audience involvement, executed in a more intimate setting. As Bullock puts it, "this is the conceptual evolution from our other ships." Sounds interesting. They are apparently going to be more interactive with their enrichment and conversational language programs as well.

Crystal's diverse roster of lecturers on our cruise was quite impressive as well. Without going into detail, each one was an expert and a veritable fountain of information. Their presentations were directed to the passengers and not over their heads. We especially enjoyed the option of watching the taped presentations on the TV while getting ready for dinner. The programs on our cruise ranged from the NASA space program to wine topics to the Empires of the Mediterranean.

And as a novel cruise entertainment twist, we enjoyed a resident repertory company executing its own "in your face" brand of satire and humor -- an in-house theater group performing different vignettes, if you will. Audience participation is encouraged. Many playwrights' works, like Neil Simon's, were represented in this particular venue.

We cannot ignore the gentlemen of the staff, who were always ready to whisk women off their feet to a rhumba, cha-cha or meringue! They are a resilient group, always coming back for more. As hosts, they clearly enjoyed their job and their energy was contagious!

We chose British Airways for our flight to Athens and our return from Milan, giving us a chance to sample BA's new "Club" business class. This was not the longest trip we've ever taken, but it is always preferable to recline and "chill". BA's new Club class now offers fully reclining (180 degrees) seats with leg rests that allow you to stretch out, like you would in a flat bed. You can also choose to enjoy privacy thanks to a folding screen, or to socialize with your traveling companion, who sits facing you, armrest to armrest. The LCD TV has several programming choices, and there's power port for your laptop - and of course the usual great service by seasoned professionals.

No sooner do you buckle up and sip the champagne, use the hot towel and eat your meal than it's time to stretch out and sleep, awakening to the captain announcing arrival in 30 minutes. In addition to the regular economy section, BA's transatlantic flights also have an "in-between service" called World Traveler Plus, featuring comfortable seats that recline with foot rests. Priced accordingly, the food service is economy and the seats are "almost" business. It's a more economical alternative to Club class.

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