Brian Nash's Cruise Diary: R Family Vacations Maiden Voyage
Brian Nash, who performed on R Family Vacation's Maiden
Voyage, Desribes his adventures at sea...
On Sunday, July 11th, I set sail on the beautiful Norwegian Dawn with the cream of Broadway's current crop of stars, 1,400 gay men and lesbians and their multi-ethnic children, and, of course, Rosie O'Donnell. The event was the first outing for R Family Vacations, a new travel company dedicated to providing family-based vacation events for the growing GLTB parenting community. I had been lucky enough to be asked to perform on the cruise by R Family co-founder Gregg Kaminsky; his business partner is Rosie's wife, Kelli O'Donnell. I'd be playing and singing in the piano bar on the boat, and would therefore get to see many of the incredible performances Kelli and Greg had lined up for their first event. It's unlikely that a lineup this notable would be assembled for any other cruise, so, upon hearing the entertainment roster, I said "yes" instantly. The lineup included one Tony winner, one Grammy winner, 2 television divas, Tony nominees, Obie and Drama Desk nominees, a singing gay pro footballer, an Emmy nominee...and me, NYC piano bar newbie. This would provide an opportunity to see some of the theatre world's finest performers strut their stuff, and also see them in their swimsuits. Mmm.
The cruise set off Sunday afternoon, following a lifeboat drill. I found I would be seated with "Children of Eden"'s Darius de Haas, "Avenue Q" assistant director Jen Bender, "Flower Drum Song"'s Jose Llana, the diva of Andrew Lippa's "Wild Party" and everyone's favorite belter of high A's, Julia Murney, and several lesbians and their brood in case of a rare Caribbean iceberg. I played that night, missing Billy Porter performing by the pool, and headed to the first big entertainment event, "Bollywood," as performed by the ship's resident Jean Ann Ryan Company. An odd mixture of "Bombay Dreams," the "Spectacular Spectacular" sequence from "Moulin Rouge," (with some interesting costuming) and Cirque de Solei-esque acrobatics, the show mercifully stopped making the performers sing over a slightly mixed-down Nicole Kidman from the Baz Lurhmann film soundtrack, and cut right to some pretty damn stunning flight acrobatics. The general consensus among the NY theatre cognoscenti: "I'm kinda suprised...that didn't suck at all". Well spoken.
The truly remarkable thing, however,
wasn't onstage, but in the audience. I've never seen a group of strangers
be so simply thrilled to be together. The point of this trip became
instantly clear: the kids needed to be in a space where it was OK to
have gay parents, and they could never have to be on guard. As about
75% of the adults on board had children with them, there were a whole
lot of kids of all ages around, and they seemed to be loving every minute
of the cruise. Plus, all the adults were having the pants entertained
The next evening's entertainment, after a day of realizing that, yes, you could eat nonstop, and probably shouldn't, was the most eagerly anticipated of the week: Rosie's Variety Hour. This was conceived as a showcase for all the events that were to come in the following days, hosted by an apparently reluctant Rosie. The "inside story" was that she didn't want the cruise to be about her, and instead wanted Kelli and all she had organized to take the spotlight; therefore, Ro' was hesitant to be too visible. She was convinced otherwise, and was soon kicking off every event essentially improving 20 minutes of stand-up about the day's events. We could hardly object...she was hysterically funny, and genuinely excited about everything that was happening. This first night, she was getting back into host mode, and the show opened with a bizarre, funny, showbizzy "Anything Goes"-esque parody with Broadway vets in sailor suits, and Rosie fumbling her dance steps and good-naturedly shrugging before an appreciative audience. Other highlights included Liz McCartney tearing up her big number from "Taboo", "Talk Amongst Yourselves", her co-star Euan Morton offering a beautifully-sung, but curiously-chosen, "Bless the Beasts and the Children" (plenty of children in attendance; beasts remained to be seen), Seth Rudetsky offering a preview of his "Deconstructing the Brady Bunch Variety Hour", and Julia Murney wailing on "All That Jazz", complete with dancing boys and a belted high E. Rosie was warming up, and joined a bunch of us briefly in the nightly dance club upstairs.
Tuesday was a day in port in lovely, scenic Port Canaveral. Hmm. Well, as I couldn't make it to Disney and back before I had to play that evening, I stayed on the ship, and met up with Jose Llana and "Thoroughly Modern Millie"'s Gavin Creel, who kindly offered a preview of their upcoming performance of the title number from "Dreamgirls". Two white boys and a Filipino man performing as 3 black women was something I was loathe to miss, but as my band would be playing in NYC Saturday night, I'd have to leave the cruise early and miss their performance. Many thanks to them for their poolside rendition.
A pattern was starting to emerge...I was playing from 7pm-9pm, and most of the big entertainment events started in the gianormous Stardust Theatre at 9. Therefore, I'd play the last chord of whatever showtune a 7-year-old had requested (I swear to God), and then haul ass with all my music to catch the shows in question. Tuesday night was the Coors Comedy Showcase, which went a long way towards repairing the ill will towards the beer company for some homophobic comments made by its former CEO. That, and the girls on the ship appreciated the appearance of Rockette Ann Cooley in a formfitting Coors bathing suit. Performing that night were Poppy Chaplain, Lambda Literary Award-winning author/comic Bob Smith, and Judy Gold, who brought the house down with a baby-friendly version of her normal stand-up routine. Due to the response, her late night show later in the week was moved from the upstairs lounge to the theatre.
Following the show, there was a mass-exodus upstairs to the lounge to see a cabaret performed by "Taboo"'s Liz McCartney, with guest appearances by Euan Morton and McCartney's understudy, Brooke Elliot. Though, as always, in fine voice, McCartney's show seemed to lack form and preparation. Opening with the Flanders and Swann "I'm Tone Deaf," she took an audience that was expecting something closer to the work they'd seen from her and gave them a legit soprano piece of special material that's usually given as an encore. The rest of the show swung rather wildly from pop tunes that it seems she just felt like singing ("The Night That the Lights Went Out In Georgia"? Really??), to the "Liz McCarntey At Liberty" flavored career-chronology. Duets with Morton and Elliot, a remarkable singer, seemed a bit under-rehearsed and her accompanist badly flubbed a well-sung "Meadowlark". However, her ease with the audience and comic sensibilities made it a quite enjoyable evening, and an encore of songs about the sea, dedicated to her sailor father, closed the show out poignantly.
Or, so we thought. Rosie then walked out onto the stage, hugged Liz, and demanded and encore performance of "Talk Amongst Yourselves," thereby sending the tech staff scrambling to the theatre to get the track from Monday night while Rosie kept the audience busy. Once the CD was found, Liz once again delivered, while Rosie sat next to her onstage, visibly moved.
The Wednesday night lineup, following a day in Key West, was a triple-header: Christine Ebersole with Billy Strich at 9pm, Seth Rudetsky performing his solo show, "Rhapsody in Seth" at 10, and Bob Smith performing upstairs at 11. I had missed Christine Ebersole's show with Billy Strich at its recent Feinstein's run, and I was excited to see what the R Family brochure listed as "one of their classy Cabaret Shows". Ebersole and Stritch were absolutely stunning. As they had co-starred in the current revival of "42nd Street"(giving Ebersole her Tony Award), and recently put the finishing touches on a joint album, they were completely at home with each other, making even the 650-seat theatre seem intimate. Ebersole's voice was in pristine condition, and she navigated her way through all the material with incredible charm and ease. Stritch, however, impressed me even more. Instead of taking a backseat to Ebersole, Stritch performed a few solo numbers, displaying incredible vocal chops entirely equaling his widely known skills as a jazz pianist. They duetted on several numbers from "42nd Street", and in between, Ebersole peppered her banter with hilariously delivered political statements and silly moments, at one point spraying water onto the stage through her teeth, and at her final number, breaking out in the giggles for two minutes while Stritch vamped. A highlight, though, was her "Lady In The Dark" Encores number, "My Ship", in which she performed a remarkable vocal-trumpet solo with her hands cupped around the mic, at one point sailing up to a high D. The audience howled its approval.
Shifting to another seat in the theatre, I then watched Seth Rudetsky's "Rhapsody in Seth", his solo show about growing up a slightly overweight showtune loving pianist on Long Island. Though the sound system for the large theatre sometimes made mincemeat of his rapid-fire comic delivery, his piece was incredibly well-recieved. Besides being a brilliant pianist, who started each section of the show with a different section from the Gershwin "Rhapsody in Blue", Rudetsky's obsession with, and encyclopedic knowledge of, the art of female belting kinda stuck an incredibly familiar note with me. As he held up his Madrid cast recording of "Evita" starring Paloma San Basilio (I can't believe I just typed that without looking), I cringed, knowing that I knew he was going to play a section of her hollered-out "Buenos Aires", and I too played Patti LuPone's "amaaazing" (long "a") belted string of high E's over the phone to a friend. Gawd. I adored it. However, Rosie's effusive introduction of Christine (I told you she got more comfortable) pushed the whole evening back 25 minutes, so I made it for Bob Smith's last 2 jokes. Damn. So much for getting him to sign my copies of his books.
Fun side note: in the discotheque (as those crazy Europeans call it) that night, 'twas 80's night, and I spent the late night hours dancing with Messrs. Creel, Llana, De Haas, and Mlles. Murney, Elliott, and Bender. I also met, for the first time, "Rent" and "Zanna, Don't" diva Anika Larsen, who would be performing in Seth's Saturday night belting showcase. After we'd all finished dancing to the B-52's, Larsen and I sat up until 4:30am, sitting at a piano in the lounge, and singing everything from "Rent" to Jason Robert Brown tunes, to Tori Amos, to "And I Am Telling You". And I was supposed to sing the next night. It was absurd amounts of fun.
Thursday night would be my last on the Norwegian Dawn, as I'd be flying back to New York out of Nassau early Friday morning. It was another 3-show night, following my final, slightly crunchy set in the piano bar (at which a slightly sleepy Anika joined me for a few songs, and the last of the toddlers asked for songs from "Wicked"). Billy Porter was first up at 9pm. I've long been a fan of his, and only wished that he'd gotten to sing on the cast album for "Songs for a New World", which he premiered. His concert was a mixture of show music, original tunes, and R & B, with the ever-present Seth Rudetsky doing remarkable work at the piano. Porter's unmistakable voice was in great form, and he delivered stunning renditions of "Awaiting You" from "Myths and Hymns" and a beautiful song dedicated to his mother, "A Mama Like Mine". He also tore up a verse and a half of "And I Am Telling You"in full J-Ho mode, and relayed the story of his audition for the role of the Witch in the recent revival of "Into The Woods" (after he was judged to have too much "pizzazz" for the Baker). He launched into "Last Midnight", then, delivering an incredibly acted performance, and wailing the hell out of the song (in the original key, I might add). His encore was a pitch-perfect, slightly reharmonized arrangement of Sondheim's "Sunday", which was achingly lovely. After a standing ovation, Rudetsky ran backstage to get miked up for the next show.
10pm. "Deconstructing the Brady Bunch Variety Hour". Seth ran through the history and clips of this short-lived, Osmond-esque, all-singing, all-dancing TV revue, pointing out the vast spectrum of things which were wrong with this picture:
1) None of the Bradys could sing or dance...
2) With the exception of Florence Henderson, who could only belt to a G, and thereafter got really odd diction.
3) Ann B. Davis, the only dancer in the bunch, was still somehow playing a maid, so she simply wore bedazzled pant suits.
4) The real Jan wouldn't do the show, so they hired a fake Jan, and tried to hide her as much as possible.
5) This whole weird step-Oedipal thing between Greg and Mrs. Brady.
6) Dancing bears and synchronized swimmers.
The show ended with Rudetsky teaching selected audience-Bradys (including producer Jaime McGonnigal, Julia Murney, Gavin Creel, and assorted lesbians) a closing number, which, in 30 seconds of rehearsal, was far more together than the actual Bradys. Go find the DVDs. Now.
Finally, Judy Gold returned to a packed theatre to do an hour and 15 minutes of standup, now sufficiently obscenbity-laden, as the kids were in bed. Except for the 5-year-old in the front row. She also enjoyed making the ASL interpreter sign strings of curses, breaking up the audience. The night finished at 12:30am, and I returned to my room to pack for my flight the next morning.
Though I'd miss Joy Behar performing Friday night, and an incredible lineup of singers on Saturday (which would also include, besides all those mentioned above, Andrea Burns, Jason Little, Virginia Woodruff, and Elaine Brier), I don't think there's any way that my week could be more filled with remarkable artistry. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for me and the other passengers, to see the best that the New York theatre community has to offer, and to expose the kids on the ship to really incredible talent. Rosie, Kelli, and Gregg from R Family somehow struck gold with their quest to get the best of the best, and it'll be some time, I know, before I have the opportunity to see so much great work being done in so little time. Not only this, but the social aspects of the cruise were such a remarkable achivement for both the kids and adults, that I'm sure R Family will have incredible successes with their events in the future. Here's hoping that somehow, they can assemble such a brilliant group of performers every time. And that they take me with them.
Brian Nash is a recent NYC transplant, where he works as a pianist, singer, music director, producer, and orchestrator. He can be seen most often playing at the Duplex and Brandy's, or with the Justin Tranter Band at CBGB and the like. He now, after an awful experience working on the Spirit of Boston when he was 18, really enjoys cruises.
For More Cruise Coverage, Click Herefor Jamie McGonnigal's Cruise Diary