What do Jennifer Hudson, James Martin and Trevor McDonald have in common? They’re all cruise entertainers now. Jane Archer reports

Like this and want more details? Click here to download and save as a PDF.

It’s farewell to the Phantom as cruise lines move their entertainment up several notches after years of featuring frilly-costumed singers and dancers performing songs from the shows.

Hop on a Royal Caribbean or Norwegian Cruise Line ship these days and you can catch full-blown, authorised versions of Chicago, Saturday Night Fever or Legally Blonde. Pick another line and choose from top rock bands, performers in high-tech flashing costumes and stars from classic TV shows.

The entertainment doesn’t stop when the curtain comes down either. There are hands-on cookery classes, dancing and painting lessons, celebrity speakers and more to help fill passengers’ days and nights.

Curtain up

Musicals still play their part. Royal Caribbean has some of the world’s best-loved, chart-topping shows on its ships – Chicago on Allure of the Seas, Hairspray on Oasis of the Seas and Saturday Night Fever on Liberty of the Seas. When it launches in November, Quantum of the Seas will be showing Mamma Mia!

Royal Caribbean’s two megaships also have an AquaTheatre – an ordinary pool by day that in the evening becomes an outdoor show lounge with synchronised swimming, high-diving acrobatics (the diving tower has two diving boards and two 10-metre-high dive platforms) and stunning light shows.

On the operator’s smaller Radiance, Vision and Sovereign-class ships, the atrium has been turned into an alternative theatre with aerial artists performing on ropes and trapezes strung high above the audience.

Over on Norwegian’s new ship Norwegian Getaway, passengers can catch Legally Blonde in the theatre, with Rock of Ages on Norwegian Breakaway and mime cabaret artists Blue Man Group on Norwegian Epic.

Norwegian Getaway also has an Illusionarium magic dinner show, combining illusions and dinner, while both Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Epic have Cirque Dreams, with acrobatics while you eat.

The two latter ships both boast a Supper Club-style cabaret in their Manhattan dining rooms. On Norwegian Breakaway, the entertainment, which is free, is provided by dancers from the ship’s Burn the Floor show; on Norwegian Epic by performers from Las Vegas-based tribute company Legends in Concert.

P&O Cruises’ ship Britannia, launching in spring 2015, will have a Supper Club experience in the Limelight Club, a new venue for the company, but it is charging passengers (the price has yet to be revealed) and the singers will be plucked from the ship’s troupe of performers.

While many cruise lines retain traditional song-and-dance-style shows for the theatre (and some throw game shows, mind-readers and comedians into the evening mix), Celebrity Cruises favours singing and dancing mixed with death-defying aerial acts.

Because of its multilingual passenger base, MSC Cruises focuses on visual shows made up of song and dance with a liberal sprinkling of acrobatics.

Crystal Cruises has teamed up with America’s Got Talent winners Team iLuminate to present Imagine, an unusual show that is performed in total darkness, where the dancers are dressed in black costumes fitted with wireless lights that they switch on and off so they appear and disappear, as do parts of their bodies.

High notes

Carnival Cruise Lines has pulled a coup by booking top-name singers and bands including Chicago, Foreigner, Jennifer Hudson and Lady Antebellum (pictured below) to perform on eight of its ships this year.

The move is unique because while cruise ship entertainment traditionally has always all been included in the fare, passengers must pay for the Carnival Live shows. Tickets range from $20 to $40, while a VIP experience, including best seats and an artist meet-and-greet are priced from $100 to $150.

The bands won’t actually be sailing on the ships; instead, they’ll perform on-board when the ships are in Cozumel, Nassau and Catalina Island in California, but get off before the vessels depart. In all, 49 concerts have been lined up for 2014.

Beatles tribute bands are ubiquitous on the high seas, but Cunard has signed up the Beatles Experience to mark the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s barn-storming first appearance in the US, in February 1964. The group is playing on a transatlantic cruise from New York to Southampton on October 28, with prices from £1,419 per person including one way flight.

Cruise Entertainment

What’s cooking

Oceania Cruises’ two newest ships, Marina and Riviera, each has a culinary centre where expert chefs hold hands-on cookery classes for passengers. Each centre has 12 workstations, each for two people, and there are classes on preparing everything from Greek to Asian and Mexican cuisine. Lessons cost $69.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has a Miele Culinary School on Europa 2, where up to eight passengers at a time can learn to conjure up dishes under the guidance of the chef from Tarragon, the ship’s French restaurant. The four-hour classes cost €80, which includes a chef’s apron and recipes.

P&O Cruises is jumping on the culinary bandwagon with new ship Britannia, which will have a Cookery Club created by Saturday Kitchen chef James Martin. Martin will be hosting classes on five cruises during the ship’s maiden season (on March 14, June 13, July 6, September 14 and October 9), with a handpicked team and guest celebrity chefs leading the other sessions.

P&O is one of many cruise lines that lays on cookery demonstrations, either with their own chefs or guest celebrities. Atul Kochhar, who has restaurants on three P&O ships, and will also have an eatery on Britannia, regularly travels with the line.

Holland America Line holds cookery shows, classes and wine-tasting events and more in its theatre-style Culinary Arts Center on all its ships.

Celebrity speakers

Cunard is famed for its Insights lecture programme, which has featured a diverse range of speakers, from politicians to authors, astronauts to broadcasters, to keep passengers entertained, usually during transatlantic crossings on Queen Mary 2, but also on Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.

Names signed up for 2014 include Midge Ure, lead singer of Ultravox and co-founder of Band Aid, who will be on Queen Mary 2 for the first 10 days of a 15-night cruise round-trip from Southampton to the Norwegian fjords from August 5-20 (from £1,499 per person cruise-only).

Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England, will be on the ship’s following transatlantic voyage from Southampton to New York, departing August 20 (from £1,449 per person including return flight to the UK).

Rather than theatre shows, Swan Hellenic’s entertainment focuses on lectures by professors, classics scholars and historians, with the occasional famous name, as well as classical music concerts.

Broadcaster Trevor McDonald will be on the line’s D-Day 70th anniversary cruise round-trip from Portsmouth departing on June 4 and visiting key First and Second World War sites in northern France. Battlefield historian Dr Peter Caddick-Adams will also be on the cruise to talk about the D-Day Landings (from £2,435 per person cruise-only).

Actor and impersonator Alistair McGowan will be joining Swan’s ship Minerva on a 16-day voyage from Portsmouth to Honningsvåg in Norway and back on July 15, while the Shakespeare Review Company will be performing a special show, Swanning Around, on Swan’s 60th anniversary cruise around Greece from Naples to Piraeus on August 13 (prices from £2,710 and £2,495 per person respectively).

Voyages to Antiquity has a similar ethos to Swan Hellenic, so passengers on this line can expect plenty of erudite lectures about the places they are visiting from archaeologists, historians, political scientists and diplomats. Former British war correspondent Martin Bell will be on Aegean Odyssey for four cruises as it sails from Singapore back to the Med in March and April 2015, while religious broadcaster Ernest Rea is on 11 cruises in the Mediterranean and Asia this year and next.

Seabourn has ‘Conversations’, which is a chance for passengers to learn about the lives of eminent historians, foreign affairs experts, marine biologists, astronomers and more. Royal portrait painter Richard Stone, who also lists Margaret Thatcher, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela among his subjects, will be talking on a cruise from Copenhagen to Dover on Seabourn Quest departing July 27 (from £3,999 per person cruise-only including drinks and gratuities).