Backstage on the `Love Boat'

It's show time on the Pacific Princess. Guests are seated on the elegant russet-colored sofas in the Carousel Lounge anticipating ``Dancing Down Broadway.'' At precisely 8:30 p.m., the lights dim, the Carousel Orchestra strikes up the music, and the entertainment begins. Tonight's show features all five of the cruise directors, who are all talented performers. It also includes guest performers Joy Matthews and Paul Birchall, and the ``Love Boat'' Dancers - all four of them.

Other shows include another talented couple, the husband-and-wife team Tony and Leila Cosic, billed as the Duo Kaprice. It's a small cast, yet they pull off a full-size production with a lot of pizazz. And it's done on a small, round, marble stage that, like the Princess herself, rolls with the sea.

Tonight's show features song-and-dance numbers from favorite New York shows, choreographed and costumed to perfection. Everyone in the cast appears to be in close synchronization. With a succession of rapid costume changes, the show leaps from solos to all-cast numbers for a full hour - only to be repeated at 10:15 p.m. for the passengers from the second dinner sitting.

When it dawns on you that some of the performers have been on this ship for only two weeks, you wonder how the high level of performance is achieved and maintained night after night.

I caught up with guest performer Joy Matthews one morning in the Bridge Lounge, where she was chatting with passengers. ``This is my first time on a Princess Cruise,'' Ms. Matthews said. ``I auditioned for the job in California, where the Princess Cruises Entertainment Division has its offices.

``Out of 85 who auditioned, only four of us were chosen to be trained for the shows. We went to a studio in Los Angeles and were taught six full productions in three weeks,'' Matthews continued. ``Three days before the end of the training, I was asked to sign on for a four-month tour on the Pacific Princess. I came on 2 months ago, and will stay another month.'' (An average assignment is four months on board and two off.) ``My experience in music before coming to the Pacific Princess was mostly in California. I've appeared in 25 musicals near my home in Huntington Beach.''

In her college years, Matthews sang in and traveled with the California State (Long Beach) University Choir. Part of her 13 years of voice training was in opera, so she figures in a wide range of vocal numbers, from popular songs to arias.

Tall, tanned, and handsome in his spotless white tuxedo, Paul Birchall comes to the cruise from Australia. And what a professional! Mr. Birchall is well known in his home country, where he has appeared on stage and on TV. His performances on the Princess range from singing an extensive medley of Cole Porter songs in his solo show to performing more popular American songs than most of us natives could begin to remember in the production called ``American Jubilee.''

Then there's comedian Berri Lee, who does stand-up routines and magic acts in the cabaret shows, as well as doing solo shows early and late in the evening. When you meet him on deck in his flowered ``jams'' during the day, he may pull off a card trick or two.

Behind the scenes, back in Los Angeles, the Princess Cruise's entertainment division, headed by Brian Langston-Carter, is made up of six people who plan all the entertainment featured on the five Princess Cruise ships. They selected the music and produced the six shows currently presented on the ships. The music, choreography, and costumes are the same. This way, a performer can walk up the gangplank of a new ship, taking his or her own costumes, and step into a production in only a day or two.

On this 10-night, transcanal cruise, there are three big production shows. On other nights the entertainment varies from local folkloric shows (brought on board at Acapulco, Mexico, and Aruba) to the ``London Pub-Night Show,'' to the ``Big Band Night,'' which features '40s music, and ``A Night at the Races,'' complete with a race track.

A bandmaster supervises the three bands on board, offering a variety of music. The Carousel Orchestra accompanies the major evening entertainment; the Cruz Brothers Trio and the Franco Set appear in different lounges during the afternoon and evening. For the late-nighters, there's recorded disco music in the Pirates Cove Lounge on the upper deck.

Rehearsals on board are held ``during meal times and while guests are on shore,'' according to cruise director Jim Everett, a multitalented singer, dancer, and comedian. While Mr. Everett is in charge of the shows, other members of the cast share various responsibilities.

That's a good thing, because Everett is visible on deck all day long, or wherever a new activity has begun, sometimes giving slide talks on going ashore, or showing up during tea to chat with passengers. I was convinced he had a twin - or should have one. According to one crew member, ``Jim is one of the best cruise directors on the Princess Lines.''

When asked how his career on shipboard began, Everett answers, ``I saw an ad for a cruise director in an L.A. newspaper one day. I called for an interview, went to it, was hired, and sailed that evening.''

That was in 1963, and he's still sailing.

Was he an overnight success in the shows? I ask. ``I had been a professional ice skater as a young man, appearing in `Holiday on Ice' shows,'' Everett says. ``I quit college and was drafted into the Army. When the Army found out that I had a background in show business, they assigned me to Special Services. There I began to produce shows. After the Army years,'' he adds, ``I worked as an impressionist on the nightclub circuit.''

Since a successful cruise requires a combination of good cabins and service, excellent food, friendliness on board, and super entertainment, there's no doubt that aboard Princess Cruises, there's a busy backstage crew making sure it all works out front.

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