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Belters, Babies, and a Big Gay Boat: Rosie's Family Cruise

BELTERS, BABIES, AND A BIG GAY BOAT: MY ADVENTURES ON ROSIE'S FAMILY CRUISE

By Brian J. Nash

On July 2nd 2006, R Family Vacations set out on the Norwegian Star from Seattle to the waters of Alaska for their third chartered cruise. R Family, a company founded on the principal of giving gay and lesbian families a safe, comfortable atmosphere to vacation with their children, is currently in its third year of existence. Bolstered by brilliant word-of-mouth from their previous vacations and the broadcasting of an HBO documentary that trailed the events of the first year's cruise, the ship was sold out months in advance, even without posting their entertainment lineup. Some companies might use this as an opportunity to save some cash; as the tickets were already sold, why spend more getting first-class acts whose presence is ostensibly to sell tickets? Clearly, though, any company with Rosie O'Donnell as its principal spokesperson and figurehead would never put thrift over entertainment, and this year's cruise boasted the most spectacular lineup yet. From an Emmy nominated comedian, to a Grammy-winning pop star, multiple Tony nominees, an Emmy-winning writer as musical director, and a four-time Tony winner, one could not imagine a starrier cast. Rosie and the co-presidents of R Family, Gregg Kamisky and Kelli O'Donnell, expertly assembled a magical week on the seas.

            So, what on earth was I doing there? This was my 3rd R Family cruise; about 3 weeks before the first trip went out in 2004, Gregg and his husband wandered into a piano bar on the Upper East Side in which I was playing and singing, and insisted that I be brought along. Not knowing what I was in for, of course I agreed. What followed was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life, and I was honored to be invited along on the ensuing vacations. For five nights of the cruise, I would be playing late nights in the ship's "champagne lounge", which is basically a piano bar with more carpeting. The rest of the time was my own, to lounge by the pool, explore the coast of Alaska, see some brilliant performances, eat enough to sustain a high school show choir for a month, and play some old-school Super Mario Brothers on my Game Boy in my cabin when I couldn't sleep. I couldn't wait.

SUNDAY, JULY 2ND- SEATTLE

            Having played in clubs in New York for the past 3-½ years, I've become nocturnal. Thus, an 8am flight from Newark to Seattle is essentially penance. Deciding not to sleep, having played the night before, meant that it was a verrrry groggy piano-boy who staggered into the terminal, late, to find that the flight was delayed. After eventually getting on board, I blearily spotted several of the performers who would be taking part in the cruise, including Tony diva Audra McDonald. Sitting in coach. Hm.

            I managed to nap after the elderly couple next to me stopped taking turns leaping over me every 4 minutes to get to the restroom, and we arrived in Seattle to find many of our future cruisers gathered around the baggage claim. Hopping on board a bus to the seaport, we were greeted by an incredibly enthusiastic old tour guide and a Wookie on Rollerblades. I'm not lying. Once Chewie left our bus, we were allowed to proceed to the check-in, where I ran into musical director Seth Rudetsky, checking in with his incredibly sweet and funny mom. Imagine your typical Jewish mother who raised a comedian, pianist, and belting enthusiast, add elements of all those things to her personality, and put her in a room with about 450 kids, and you get the idea.

            Once we were cleared, we boarded the boat to be greeted by Kelli and Gregg. One of the phenomenal things about this company is the personal investment the staff has with each passenger. As many are parents and members of gay families themselves, they know that each person comes on board with their own stories and struggles, and they strive to make everyone feel completely at home and at ease while in their care.  I waved a hello to some of the people I knew from previous years, and went to my cabin to unpack.

            Following the mandatory lifeboat drill (in which I realized that my survival chances could well be increased by being stranded in a lifeboat with 19 lesbians and their kids…they're not messing around), I headed up to the poolside deck for the "Sail Away"
 party to get a good look at the makeup of this group. Gay dads with perfectly groomed foster kids on their shoulders, lesbian moms with multi-ethnic children dancing near the bar-b-que, Sister Sledge blaring from the speakers, teens already making friends in the hot tubs, and everyone looking like they were having the time of their lives…never have 3,000 strangers looked so happy to be together.

            That evening was the first show of the week, featuring Tony nominee Gavin Creel. The Stardust Theater is the largest performance venue on the ship, a 1,037 seat theater, 3 decks tall, with brilliant lighting and sound, and, of course, a revolve. After Gregg and Kelli welcomed everyone on board, they introduced the R Family crew, many of whom would be performing at various points throughout the week. Then, Gavin.

            In recent years, Gavin Creel has been recognized not only for his breakout performance opposite Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie, his work in the revival of La Cage aux Folles and for creating a role in Stephen Sonheim's Bounce, but also for his original music. He recently released a record, GOODTIMENATION, which reveals a soul-influenced groove driven sound, matched up with smart lyrics and killer vocal chops. Gavin flew in from rehearsing Mary Poppins in London to join the cruise for the third year, and this was his first solo show in the theatre space. The long hair he's been sporting for the past few years has been cut shorter, and he emerged in jeans and a blazer, barefoot. He tore into the set, backed by his stellar band, with "Might Still Happen", a joyous, poppy Motown flavored dance tune. His set, which consisted principally of originals, showed that the record wasn't just a fluke; here was not a musical theatre boy trying to rock out, but a serious pop-rock artist who also happens to be a fantastic actor. Between songs, Gavin grooved out with a 4 year old in the front row, said hi to his "tiny tyke fans" from previous cruises, and talked about how one of his poppiest tunes,  "Fri Sat Sun", was inspired over his anger at the first attempt at a federal marriage amendment (referring to the genre as "poli-disco"). Other highlights included "For Nancy", an acoustic song about a son coming out to his mother, and "Sail on Through", inspired by his experience on the first two R Family cruises. The crowd rewarded Gavin with a standing ovation, and I went downstairs to play my first set of the week.  

            On previous cruises, as the week went on I would gain a rather loyal following…from my first night playing on this cruise, though, the room was mobbed. I was floored, as I had to play an extra hour and a half to meet the demand. Checking out the upstairs balcony mid-song, I spotted Wicked diva Julia Murney, Avenue Q assistant director Jen Bender, and Norm Lewis peering over the banister and waving. After chatting with them for a bit via microphone, I continued whatever I was playing, and they eventually ran off to the 24-hour snack bar. Of course, as I reluctantly struck up the first notes of "And I Am Telling You", a request from someone in the back, Murney, Lewis, et al. came bolting back into the room. With apologies to Norm, who's done a few Dreamgirls himself, I launched into my best J-Ho. Norm ran and hid, Murney and Bender broke up with laughter, and the crowd lost their minds. After that, it was clearly time to call it a day, and thus ended the first night of our vacation.

MONDAY, JULY 3RD – AT SEA

            After the absurdities of the night before and my sleepless flight from New York, I slept in the next day, thereby missing yoga with fitness guru Susan Powter. The "stop the insanity!" workout queen arrived on the boat sporting, in lieu of her usual blond crew cut, pink dreads. Hot. Most of the day consisted of wandering about the boat, getting to know the setup, and chatting with some of my favorite families from previous cruises. The moms of my favorite 6-year-old drag queen were once again on board, and we discussed his plans to sing Annie with me later in the week. Monday was also the day of the infamous Chocoholic's Buffet, featuring every conceivable chocolate dessert, more often than not shaped like some cute woodland creature. However, the real attraction of this day at sea was the evening's mainstage show, "Rosie's Broadway Belters".

            Each year, Rosie hosts an evening of some of her favorite performers recreating classic theatre tunes, following an opening number in which she gamely performs. Music directed and arranged by Seth Rudetsky, these evenings are always one of the highlights of the week.

            The evening began with a glitzy opening number, arranged by Seth and orchestrated by Jesse Vargas, which featured some of the R Family crew and built up to reveal Rosie dancing and singing among them. After this number, Rosie stepped forward and began speaking to the crowd; her patter soon developed into borderline stand-up. She revealed that she did everything she could to be seen for the role of Mme. Thenardier in the Les Miz revivlet, only to be told by Cameron Mackintosh that he "just didn't see it". Before the end of the evening, this would be rectified, but first up was All Shook Up's Paul Castree singing "Suddenly Seymour" with Anne Steele, a member of Saturday headliners, Tipping the Velvet. This beautifully sung duet was followed by the brilliant Liz Calloway, recreating her Tony-nominated turn as Lizzie in Baby's "I Want It All". Calloway was joined by two of Rosie's fellow cast members from Fiddler on the Roof, Joy Hermalyn and Ann Van Cleave. Both gifted performers, their voices were less well suited to the material, and their legit singing didn't mesh well with Calloway's legendary belt. Another Fiddler vet, Urinetown's Nancy Opel followed with a medley of tunes from Evita. Opel was one of the first alternate Evas in the original production, and 20 years later, she belted her way through "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina", "Buenos Aires", and "A New Argentina" (each in the original key), without batting an eye. This incredible moment was followed by Brandi Massey, current Elphaba standby in Wicked, singing "Defying Gravity", with Haviland Stillwell as her Glinda. Massey let loose with a powerful belt, with just enough R&B flavoring to make the last 32 bars of that well-worn song exciting and entirely new. This was also one of the times in which the semi-costuming added much; at the moment in which Elphie flies, two panels opened in the back of her dress, leaving billowing green silks trailing behind her as she wailed. The show stopped cold for her ovation. I was feeling sorry for whoever had to follow that powerhouse performance, until Rosie brought Norm Lewis out onstage with a special guest: Audra McDonald. Norm and Audra duetted on a stunning and poignant "Wheels of a Dream", finessing the final verse beautifully in a definitive version of the song. As the crowd roared, Rosie and the cast emerged with a cake, singing "Happy Birthday" to an incredibly surprised Audra. Marya Grandy, an R Family staffer who has gone on to have a wonderfully successful career was up next. After playing one of the three Trailer Park mavens in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, she signed her Les Miz contract just before boarding the boat, and showed her brilliant vocal chops on "I'm The Greatest Star". Former NFL star Esera Tuaolo followed with a powerfully sung "I Know Where I've Been" from Hairspray, with most of the cast backing him up in a rousing gospel choir. "On My Own" was the final solo of the evening, sung by yet another Fiddler friend; sung entirely in head voice, this was one of the few misses of the evening. However, the finale made up for this misstep; dressed in recreations of the Broadway costumes, the cast returned in full to perform "One Day More", giving Rosie a chance to step into the role of Mme. Thenardier at last. Norm Lewis, about to step into the boots of Javert, here sang Enjolras' lines in a thrilling baritone, and the number concluded with the traditional Power Wedge, with a cast member waving a rainbow Pride flag behind the company. As the standing ovation started, I ducked out to start playing before the crowds came surging out of the theatre, eager for more entertainment. Or bed. Or snacks.

JULY 4TH- JUNEAU, ALASKA

            Alaska was never high up on my list of vacation destinations, but as we pulled into Juneau, I started to re-evaluate. The boat was docked next to a snow-topped mountain, green with vegetation, and the clearest air I've ever breathed. The New Yorker in me was incredibly confused. I went to the upper decks of the ship to grab some lunch and look at the nature-type things, and ran into Julia Murney, Gavin, and Jen Bender. Murney and I proceeded to have a lovely long chat about the dirt on the Wicked tour ("I can't get the green out of my hair") and express my regret at not getting to see her in Boston. Hopefully, the producers will bring her into the NY company as soon as possible…this city needs to see what she can do with that role. Here's hoping. Bender and Murney were off to take a helicopter to a dogsled camp…I, on the other hand, was off to take a floatplane over a glacier.

            I had no idea what a floatplane was, so I was a bit nervous, even when I saw Cyndi Lauper in line as well. If it's good enough for Cyndi…. Essentially, it's a 10-seater prop plane with boat skids where the wheels ought to be. We took off from the water and proceeded to fly up into the mountains, getting an extraordinary view of the topography of the area. Then, as the altitude increased, we came upon the Mendenhall Glacier, an enormous ice field that stretches for miles in every direction. Having just seen the Al Gore documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth", it was stunning to see one of these marvels of nature…while a few still exist.

            Back on land, it was time to get back to the boat for the main event of the evening: Audra McDonald.

            Ms. McDonald strolled onstage to a bass accompaniment, looking beautiful, and delivered a Michael John LaChiusa song written about her family. "When Lola Sings" tells the story of a double bass (Audra's husband is her bassist) and the man who loves her includes a scat solo on the syllable "Zoe", the name of their daughter. Following this harmonically fascinating tune, Audra and musical director Ted Sperling launched into Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon", featured on her first album. The evening showed McDonald's thrilling instrument to perfect advantage, and the choice of material was wonderfully adventuresome, especially given the mixed crowd. Yes, she performed a sing-along of "I Could've Danced All Night", causing many to instantly wish for a revival, but also sang a new song by composer Steve Marzullo, and a wonderful tune by the late Jonathan Larson, taken from an unproduced musical about the 1939 World's Fair. An acting tour de force, "Hosing Down The Furniture" contrasts the ease of technology with the paucity of emotion in many modern marriages. Though she said that she disliked singing it out of the context of the show, McDonald sang a moving and emotional "Your Daddy's Son", her Tony-winning song from Ragtime. Before her final number, the anchor was being raised quite audibly beneath the stage…Audra decided that no ballad could survive the clanking and grinding of gears, and told a story Norm Lewis related to her about his quest one morning for a McGriddle. No one present will ever look at that weird breakfast hybrid the same again. Once all was quiet again, she closed with a tender and lovely Sperling arrangement of "Not A Day Goes By", layered with "What Can You Lose", from Stephen Sondheim's score for the film, Dick Tracey. The audience refused to let her off that easy, and Audra re-emerged for an unscheduled encore.

            As it was Independence Day for the Americans on board, R Family had prepared a celebration upstairs on the open decks, including a laser light show in lieu of fireworks (supposedly, there's a law about explosives on boats. Whatever.). Though the soundtrack got a bit hyper-American for my political taste, the laser show was impressive, especially given that most of the smoke that was to highlight the lasers was being blown right off the decks and that, being Alaska, the sun wasn't totally down at 11:25 at night. Given my dose of Americana for the year and using memories of Audra to get "Proud To Be an American" out of my head, I went downstairs for some sleep.

JULY 5- SKAGWAY, ALASKA

            Skagway looks just like you think it would: like an old mining town that was crumbling to dust before someone decided that tourists should come. Consequently, it's riddled with old-timey shacks on a boardwalk through the one street in town, cleaned up and freshly painted with Starbucks on the corner. At any rate, after visiting a camp in which Alaskan sled dogs retire for the summer (and have adorable puppies), it was time to return to the boat to see the brilliant Kathy Griffin.

            Griffin has recently jumped in popularity after starting one of the best and most honest reality shows currently airing, Bravo's My Life on the D-List. Griffin is continually up-front about her semi-celebrity status, her plastic surgery, and her clamoring for the spotlight, and shows no patience for celebs that pretend otherwise. Her 55-minute set quickly ballooned to an hour and 45 minutes, to the delight of the cruisers. Topics ranged from Star Jones' departure from The View (as Rosie couldn't officially discuss it), Clay Aiken's webcam photos, Ann Coulter's early morning cocktail dress, her mom's confusion about lesbians having children, and many, many subjects that can't be published on a family website. Her work was amazing.  Buy and TiVo anything she's ever done.

            I swung down to the piano bar to hang out and watch Bobby Peaco, the music director of Tipping the Velvet, play up a storm into the wee hours, with bunches of the kids from the Broadway Belters evening guesting in. Paul Castree also revealed that, during the musician's strike of '04, he'd been hired by the producers of Movin' Out to sing the show with tracks, replacing the band. However, on his first night, Equity thankfully went on a sympathy strike, saving him from his Broadway karaoke debut.

Genius.

JULY 6TH- GLACIER BAY, ALASKA

            I woke up to find the boat surrounded in ice, which, having seen both the film and musical of Titanic, is a little nerve-wracking. We were parked in Glacier Bay National Park, which I came to think of as kind of an ice petting zoo. Rangers were giving narration throughout the boat, as we inched along the icy shoreline, looking for whales, dolphins, bears, or even more ice. Though it was cool, I decided to go hide under my blanket.

            After we moved out of the obstacle course, I emerged to head up to the lounge and Seth's Broadway Chatterbox. For the last several years, Seth Rudetsky has done a kind of interview/roast/mini-concert at Theatre District piano bar Don't Tell Mama. A Broadway personality will submit to questions, show embarrassing videos of themselves at an early age, and tell stories; it's become a must for theatre junkies. His interviewee for this special edition of the Chatterbox was his old friend, Audra. Having looked up to her and seen her perform many times, its was humbling to hear her own stories of stage fright, false bravado, and her paranoia, later confirmed, that Barbra Streisand hates her. Tales of her passing out at benefits were alternated with stories of not getting cast in Annie in Fresno at 11 ("I said that the director told me my voice was too strong for the other orphans"), and she charmed with her assertion that she's just been incredibly lucky. Rudetsky created a genial atmosphere that felt like two friends just sitting in a living room chatting; we were honored enough to be present.         

            Following the chat, I ran downstairs to get in line for that evening's mainstage performer. At the age of 6, I worshipped this woman. Being reeeeeallly gay, I had an Annie wig, and left it out in the rain one day…I would then don the now multi-colored orangeish mane when putting on her record. Fresh from her Broadway debut in  The Threepenny Opera, Cyndi Lauper was on the Big Gay Boat.

            Cyndi was a late addition to the lineup; after having played last year, she was naturally invited back, but her Threepenny commitment left her unable to confirm until the week before the cruise. Thus, some of her band was unable to join, and she performed a lovely, stripped-down acoustic set with herself on dulcimer, Allison Walla on violin and viola, and Kat Dobson on guitar. Perfect for the intimate setting, this arrangement allowed Lauper showed off her killer voice to full advantage, with arching phrasing and connection to each lyric. Many, after seeing Threepenny, commented that Cyndi's voice was thin and reedy. This was clearly a character choice evoking Lotte Lenya in the original, as anyone who has seen Lauper, standing on the seats in the auditorium, wailing a string of sustained belted Gs in her 80's hit, "Money Changes Everything", can attest. Every tune was sung in the original key, and her anthem, "True Colors", brought the audience to their feet mid-song when, at the words, "so don't be afraid…" Lauper took an alternate line up to a G, stopped cold, and raised her fist into the air. After singing a verse of Threepenny's "Solomon Song" a cappella, she closed with a reggae version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun". Though I had to miss Liz Calloway's solo show upstairs, I knew I couldn't miss a chance to see my childhood idol perform again.

            Post-Cyndi, (who added 2 encores to the second set when the audience wouldn't let her leave), I scurried down to the piano bar, where I was supposed to have begun playing 15 minutes earlier. Luckily, I'd warned Bobby Peaco that he might have to play a bit late, and he was gamely filling in. My 2 hour set quickly became 4 hours long, as more people poured into the bar, making request upon request, and Brandi Massey, Haviland Stillwell, and Paul Castree sat in for a few tunes. At 3am, I was allowed to stop, and staggered back to my cabin to find that the room porter had folded my towel into the shape of a bunny. I knocked its washrag head off and passed out.

JULY 7TH- KETCHIKAN, ALASKA

            We docked in Ketchikan at 6am, and left at 1:30pm. Needless to say, I slept through Ketchitan. Upon resurrecting, I wandered about the boat convalescing from the previous night's set and chatting with folks as I groggily found some food and read the Merle Secrest Sondheim bio. The kids were all at the Imagination Movers show, and would soon be heading down to the "50's Diner Night", in which some of the aforementioned Broadway Belters would be joining myself and the R Family staff, singing do-wop while on roller skates. In a dining room. On a moving ship. I put on a helmet and joined.

            That evening was the Comedy Showcase, which I sadly had to miss. I was playing down in the bar (in a set that was 4 ½ hours long), and so missed Julia Murney singing the brilliant "Lesbian Love Story" from Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. Randomly rough seas made it incredibly hard to play, as by the time I finished an arpeggio, the rocking of the boat caused the piano to not be where I thought it would be. Apparently, Seth practically bolted from the stage to be sick following Murney's tune. Despite the fact that we were apparently hitting herds of some aquatic version of buffalo, I made it through my set. Weaving towards the 24-hour snack bar afterwards, I turned around and decided that maybe an empty stomach wasn't such a bad thing after all.

JULY 8TH- VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA

            For the last day of the cruise, Rosie pieced together a video of photos taken throughout the week, and planned to show it after the performance by Tipping the Velvet on the mainstage. This trio performed in the lounge the year before, and was invited to play the final show of the cruise. Jenifer Kruskamp, Anne Steele, and Stephanie Harwood are mainstays of the NYC piano bar scene, and met while working together at Don't Tell Mama. Finding that their voices blended well together, they started performing as a trio on occasional holiday shows, and after last year's performance, Rosie fell in love with them. Kruskamp's rich, effortless tone, Steel's pop-flavored clarity, and Harwood's R&B tinged husky belt, make for a lovely blend and great harmonies. Earlier in the week, they'd performed a show in the lounge, of which I was able to catch a few tunes. On the mainstage, they performed a show that was incredibly pop-heavy (Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway", Alanis Morrisette's "Uninvited", "Lady Marmalade"), which, being a rock boy, I enjoyed. However, switching in some of the tunes from the upstairs show, which included a hot version of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and Harwood's fierce rendition of "Total Eclipse of the Heart", might have been a wise decision. In addition, the Dixie Chick's "Not Ready to Make Nice" is so entirely about their experiences following their anti-Bush comments after the start of the Iraq war that it seems a bit strange to cover it, however admirable the sentiment. Sadly, the tech gods were asleep at the wheel, as lighting issues and overzealous use of a smoke machine marred sections of the show. However, the girls sounded fantastic, and the audience vastly enjoyed the performance, rooting them on. Following the show, Rosie introduced the video, showing images of the 3,000 happy, content passengers at play, with kids getting airbrushed tattoos and jumping into pools, couples exchanging vows, performers singing their faces off, and the R Family staff hard at work. That night, as I played my last set (with Rosie looking on!), those were the images that stayed with me. Once again, R Family took a group of 3,000 strangers, and, for a brief time, truly created a new family on the high seas, living, laughing and loving (as the R Family staff shirts said) without judgment or fear of prejudice. The amount of talent and love on that boat was amazing, and I felt honored and blessed to be included among that family.

Brian J Nash

July 15, 2006


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