Suspended in front of the stage like a wall of glitter, the sequin-studded curtain ripples ever so slightly. The audience settles down, theater lights dim, and a 10-piece orchestra strikes up the music.
Behind the curtain, two dozen performers on Carnival Spirit assume their practiced places. They focus and count, aloud or to themselves, the traditional metronomic rhythm of a dancer -- five-six-seven-EIGHT.
The curtain rises. Blazing stage lights blind the performers to the audience's presence, but they can't slow the beating of a dancer's heart. It's opening night -- a new show on a new ship. And it's showtime!
For years, Carnival Cruise Lines' high-energy theatricals have raised the bar on seagoing entertainment. ''From the beginning, our entertainment is what set Carnival apart from the rest of the industry,'' says Roger Blum, Carnival's vice president of cruise programming.
Indeed, those Busby Berkeley movie spectaculars of yore have nothing on today's Carnival fleet. Carnival ships are arguably the best floating theaters in the world -- boasting stellar talent, stunning costumes, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, even rotating stages. Carnival pumps more than a million dollars into each new production.
By the time you see the 18 dancers and singers on stage switch from a "Guys and Dolls" set piece to high-kicks on the wings of a World War I biplane -- or watch a pirate ship sink before your very eyes! -- it looks completely seamless, indeed magical. But behind the scenes, creating these spectaculars is a time-consuming, non-stop process, calibrated and coordinated to the second.
The process begins a year before the curtain goes up. The first thing to come together is the creative team -- costume designer, scenic designer, musical director, director, choreographer, special effects, lighting and technical designer, and producer -- who dovetail their talents from conception to opening night.
The first question they ask themselves is: How can they knock your socks off?
Breathing Life into A Dream ''We start by asking what type of show do we want,'' says production show manager Kerry Stables, a reed-thin redhead from England who started as a dancer on Carnival a dozen years ago. ''Basically, we talk about ideas, agree, disagree. Even a totally stupid idea has a grain in there to get everybody talking.''
For Carnival's newest ship, the team wanted something special related to the name Spirit. Their imaginations ran free, yielding such images as spirit of music, spirit of the American Indian, spirit of the sea, even the Spirit of St. Louis and, yes, that consummate specter of spirits, ghosts.
They knew immediately they had a winning combo and dubbed the show ''High Spirits.'' The next question: How to convert their concept into heart-pulsing entertainment?
As with all Carnival productions, first comes the musical moods: ''Should there be a ballad or an upbeat number there? Do we want to get the audience going, or be mellow here?'' Kerry explains. Once that's settled, the musical director comes back with specific song selections; the costume designer contributes visions of how the dancers will look; the choreographer delivers the dance ideas; the scenic designer consorts with the director for the big picture.
After initial meetings, ideas must become reality. For instance, there's the creation of those elaborately plumed costumes and enormous feathered and sequined headdresses -- all constructed in Las Vegas, some at a cost of $3,000 per costume.
In less than an hour, a performer might make more than a dozen costume changes. With sometimes less than 30 seconds to do so, cleverly layered costumes let dancers morph -- thanks to, among other things, Velcro -- from a dazzling gown in one scene to a diaphanous frock in the next. Hats may be instantly reversible; masks may substitute for makeup, and wigs for hairdressers.
Only when the costumes are completed and placed on the dancers does choreography begin in earnest, typically in a shoreside studio, months before opening night.
Next come revisions to meld costumes more exactly to choreography. For one ''High Spirits'' scene, the costume designer conjured an underwater image infused with mermaids... but fitting dancers into legless fishtails isn't exactly conducive to movement. It took some pretty fancy footwork, shall we say, between costumer and choreographer to make it all work -- so the mermaids resemble mermaids yet high kick like Rockettes.
Prepping for A Production at Sea: A seagoing production lacks the luxury of previewing in Peoria to tweak final touches and coordinate split-second timing of dancers, sound, light and pyrotechnics. The real proving ground is the ship itself. But typically, the ultimate stage very likely is sailing somewhere else in the meantime.
''Not until we arrive at the ship can these [ideas] all be put together,'' Kerry says. ''The technical aspects aren't worked out until the pyro man arrives with all the explosions, the scenery arrives, we arrive with dancers, and costume people arrive and we put it all together.''
For ''High Spirits'' the final stretch started eight weeks before Spirit's maiden voyage, when creators, cast and set designers converged on Helsinki, where the vessel was in the final stages of construction.
For the scene in which a sinking pirate ship explodes, creative team members become mathematicians -- coordinating the dancers' steps to the rotation rate of the turntable stage on which the pirate ship sits. To achieve the desired visual effect, the turntable's rate is fixed; but now the music tempo must be slowed; and dancers need to take only two steps left instead of four.
And amid exploding pyrotechnic wizardry, dancers -- and their costumes -- must be situated just so, in order not to get scorched.
Even then, ''a show isn't a show until the lighting designer plugs it in,'' Kerry adds. It's the glue that seals the magic. The lighting becomes scenery, adding the ultimate illusion to the sinking ship.
As the ship rises and falls on a lift built into the revolving stage, technical director Preston Bircher devises point-perfect lighting to mask the mechanical parts, directing your eyes only to what should be seen. Special effects are added so that shafts of light become visible. Preston calibrates just the right mix of smoke, pyrotechnics, even patterns of light -- (called ''gobo'' in production parlance) -- to texture the magical mood. Ultimately, he programs 14 computers throughout the theater to automate these effects at precise warp-speed intervals.
As the pirate ship sinks to the ocean bottom, the final underwater effect is achieved by Cyberlights that ''color-mix'' and digitally fade into another color -- and ''Shazam, we are under the sea,'' Preston says.
Backstage Precision Meanwhile, nearly as much choreography goes on backstage as on stage.
It's a paradigm of pacing. Between scenes, hastily shed costumes are dumped into laundry-like baskets, one for each performer. (After the show, like parachutists refolding their gear for the next jump, they arrange them again for next time..)
During the show, a half-dozen backstage crew, who mainly oversee scenery changes, might also hold a dancer's backpack -- those big Vegas-like feathery coronas -- for her to slip into as she dashes for the stage. And one of the theater's 23 flylines - suspended rigging that makes complex scene changes possible - will descend to carry the backpacks back up for storing in the stage's stratosphere.
All this effort is invisible to you; all you get is the glamour. So sit back and enjoy. On your Carnival ship, it's curtain going up.