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Broadway On The High Seas 3: Starry Nights

Patti, Howard, Norm and Seth… and for an unexpected added bonus– Willie. First-names only. That’s what this cruise was all about, right?

(Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

(Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

As if traveling in style and experiencing exotic locations wasn’t enough, we got to rub elbows with– and be entertained by– some of Broadway’s very best talent: Patti LuPone, Howard McGillin, Norm Lewis. and arguably, the hardest working man in show biz, Seth Rudetsky. What a surprise to have Willie Aames as our wonderful cruise director! I certainly don’t want to leave out the brilliant composer and musical director, Joseph Thalken, who was the iciing on the cake. What a line up!

Playbill, under the guidance of President & Publisher, Phil Birsh and Editor in Chief, Blake Ross; with the invaluable assistance of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel created a non-stop, thrill-a-minute dream vacation that we’ll talk about for years. Broadway On The High Seas 3 was a hit!

On top of our daily excursions, we had all the special Playbill entertainment keeping us busy, which is one of the reasons Michael and I barely got four hours sleep a night. But who could sleep!?! We were too busy having fun!

Shortly after we sailed on the first day, Playbill sponsored a Meet and Greet in the Constellation Theater. Of course, everyone was looking around to see if they could spot the Broadway folks. We immediately made some new friends and were busy chatting as they were about to start the welcome and introductions. In walks Patti and her husband, Matt… and they sat right in front of us.

Now, I’m as starstruck as the next person. But, I also believe that ‘stars’ are regular people and deserve respect and privacy just like the rest of us. So even though I’d daydreamed for months about sitting and chatting with Patti for hours in the ship’s lounge (which sadly, didn’t happen)… and even though I could reach out and touch her… I didn’t approach her then. We did run in to her on the deck a few nights later and exchanged greetings and I was satisfied with that. If we were going to talk, I wanted it to happen organically. Besides, I probably would have made a fool out of myself anyway because I would have gushed… and gushed… and well, you get the picture. For me, Patti LuPone is one of Broadway’s greatest treasures and a true artist that completely embodies her craft. I know it’s cliche but it was an honor just to be in the same room with her.

Judy Perl and Blake Ross made this all happen. (Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

Judy Perl and Blake Ross made this all happen. (Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

After introductions of the staff and entertainers, everyone went back to socializing and I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Blake (the editor at Playbill), and thank her for allowing high schools to use the Playbill cover for their show programs. (We used it for Joseph this past April.) This got us talking and she introduced us to Phil ( the president of Playbill) and we chatted about the exciting things Playbill is doing to expand its reach. It was really nice making those connections– and I have to say, Blake totally reminds me of Carrie Bradshaw in SITC. She’s adorable.

We also met our travel agent, Judy Perl and her husband and had the chance to thank her in person for setting everything up for us. If you haven’t been following the blog, Judy set up a private tour of Stutthof for us– and then her family joined us on the tour which was really nice. I’m looking forward to working with her great company when we travel in the future.

The second night was Patti LuPone’s big concert. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen her perform, I always marvel at her technique and artistry. She gave us her Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda show — and according to Phil afterwards, the longest concert of any performer on the BOTHS cruises so far. Patti gave us an amazing set of songs from parts she “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” played, with a mix of songs from parts she did play, including Meadowlark and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. She also sang, I Get A Kick Out of You, seeking out her Anything Goes co-star Howard McGillin and serenading him in the audience. The concert only ended after a standing ovation and three encores. I was so invigorated, I barely slept that night.

IMG_4746Tuesday night, Seth Rudetsky entertained us with his amusing and insightful, Deconstructing Broadway. Seth is an amazingly talented performer, writer and musical director among other things. I’m not sure there’s anything he can’t do. Best of all, he’s an energetic, funny guy that loves all things Broadway.

Among other things, he entertained us with his hilarious comparison of Patti and Madonna’s Eva Perons in Evita. Guess who won?

Seth Rudetsky

Seth Rudetsky

After two days off, with night excursions in Saint Petersburg, Seth was back Friday night, interviewing Broadway’s longest running Phantom, Howard McGillin, for his informal, Chatterbox. There were lots of great stories (including passing onĀ  Into the Woods) and Howard sang, A Man Could Go Quite Mad from his role in the original cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Saturday night’s entertainment was supposed to start out with Seth’s Chatterbox, interviewing Norm Lewis, only Norm had to leave the ship a couple days in to the cruise, fly to LA for a shoot on the TV series, Scandal, then fly back to rejoin the cruise– only he missed a connecting flight. So we had the bonus treat of two interviews with Patti. She’s certainly had a roller coaster-ride of a career and has many great stories to share.

Patti LuPone & Howard McGillin reprise their roles, singing, You're the Top, with musical director Joseph Th.

Patti LuPone & Howard McGillin reprise their roles, singing, You’re the Top, with musical director Joseph Thalken. (Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

After dinner, we were treated to Howard McGillin’s big concert. I really love his voice and could listen to him for hours. One of the highlights of his show was bringing Patti onstage to recreate their number, You’re the Top from Anything Goes. I’d been fortunate enough to see them do it originally on Broadway (twice), so that made it extra special for me. This was the first time they’ve had the opportunity to perform together since. It was a really great concert.

Patti LuPone and Howard McGillin, after Howard's concert. Patti's husband Matt is on the right. (Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

Patti LuPone and Howard McGillin, after Howard’s concert. Patti’s husband Matt is on the right. (Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

Sunday, Norm made it back on the ship in the afternoon, shortly before we left Lithuania. With all the travel and jet lag, they scheduled him for a massage and I happened to be in the spa at the same time and got to chat with him. He’s a super nice guy. Late that night, Playbill had scheduled Broadway After Dark, which, after a misguided game of Broadway bingo (I shouted BINGO first Seth!), it luckily became a Chatterbox with Norm. It turns out he grew up about 20 miles from me and is only a couple months younger than I am. He ended the interview by singing, Rain from Once On This Island, which was absolutely incredible!

Seth's Chatterbox with Patti LuPone.

Seth’s Chatterbox with Patti LuPone.

Monday, Seth continued his interview with Patti and we were treated to two more songs. It wasn’t until then that I realized I’d never heard her sing, I Dreamed A Dream, live. She won the Oliver Award in 1985, for her performances in both Les Miserables and The Cradle Will Rock. Patti brings such depth to the song. She also wowed us with Buenos Aires from Evita.

Patti LuPone singing Buenos Aires.

Patti LuPone singing Buenos Aires.

With Norm Lewis.

With Norm Lewis.

After dinner, everyone was blown away by Norm Lewis in concert. What a voice and a great showman! It was the perfect way to end the Playbill portion of the cruise. We’d just seen Norm on Broadway recently in Porgy and Bess and he’s simply phenomenal.

Toward the end of his concert, our cruise director, Willie Aames, joined Norm on stage for a duet and the crowd went wild.

Norm Lewis in concert. (Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

Norm Lewis in concert. (Photo courtesy of Judy Perl Worldwide Travel.)

Michael and Willie Aames.

Michael and Willie Aames.

After Norm’s concert, we celebrated the end of the cruise with one last toast. Michael and I got to chat with Willie briefly and thank him for making our stay of the Regent Seven Seas Voyager so memorable.

We actually still had one full day in Germany ahead but because our luggage had to be packed and outside our room that final night; the Playbill events ended a night earlier. This way, everyone got to dress up and there was no rush after the evenings festivities to get packed.

I forgot to mention that when we first got to our rooms, we had swag waiting for us. We received canvas Playbill bags that among other things, included a special edition print, especially for BOTHS3 that we were able to have signed by all the performers. I thought it was really a nice touch.

Playbill did an excellent job planning out this adventure. They kept us going non-stop for ten days, yet we were never rushed and still managed to have a little free time. Patti, Norm, Howard and Seth were frequently out and about, went on some of the tours and were often accessible.

I also really appreciated that we got daily updates of the Broadway events delivered to our room so we wouldn’t miss anything.

Michael getting our limited edition prints signed.

Michael getting our limited edition prints signed.

Unfortunately, Michael and I won’t be able to go on the BOTHS4 (Tahiti) but 5 and 6 are already in the works and we’re making plans.

Broadway On the High Seas is the perfect way to see the world and get a more intimate Broadway experience all rolled into one vacation.

WARNING: It’s habit-forming.

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Baltic Cruise Day Three: Helsinki, Finland

Our view of Helsinki as we sailed in to port.

Our view of Helsinki as we sailed in to port.

Helsinki is the beautiful, urban capital city of Finland. Full of history and culture it is also the largest, most populated city in Finland. We took the four hour, “Walking Tour of Helsinki”, which wasn’t nearly enough time to see all we would have liked to have seen but our guide gave us a really nice cross section of the historic and modern influences the city has to offer.

Our guides in both Turku and Helsinki stressed the importance and strong government support for education in Finland. Most education through university, is free, even to foreign students. To graduate though, in addition to the Finnish language, you must learn and show a mastery of the Swedish language as well, even though less than 5% of the population are native Swedish speakers. The reasoning is due to the close social and economic ties with Sweden. If I remember correctly, English is taught to students beginning in the third grade. I found this very impressive.

Uspenski Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Our first stop was the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. It was designed by Russian architect, Alexey Gornostaev but wasn’t built until after his death in 1862.

Next we visited Helsinki Cathedral, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, in the center of Helsinki. It’s main structure is in the design of a cross with a large main dome surrounded by four smaller domes. The domes were added later, modeled after Saint Issac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral

The interior, though simpler than many of the Russian cathedrals we would visit later, is quite stunning with its high arching peaks.

The magnificent pipe organ and choir loft of Helsinki Cathedral.

The magnificent pipe organ and choir loft of Helsinki Cathedral.

I found it interesting that the choir lofts in most of the churches and cathedrals we visited are behind the congregation and mostly hidden from view.

Great care is taken in the renovation and maintenance of these iconic Finnish landmarks.

We then walked through the more modern streets in the heart of Helsinki and saw many examples of historic and modern architecture and also many, many buildings dedicated to the arts.

Taking a break from our walk, we stopped at an intriguing little local restaurant for blueberry tarts, coffee and tea. It was tucked away in a much more densely populated part of the city that you could easily miss. The decor was quite eclectic and I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of the colorfully-lit bar just inside the entrance. I loved the atmosphere in this place.

A hidden gem in modern Helsinki.

A hidden gem in modern Helsinki.

Continuing our walk, we visited the historic Finnish National Theatre and the modern, glass-designed, Helsinki Music Centre, that houses two symphony orchestras and the Sibelius Music Academy.

Outside the Church of the Rock in the center of Helsinki.

Outside the Church of the Rock in the center of Helsinki.

Then we came to a large rock hill, roughly the size of a city block, surrounded by business and apartment buildings. Inside this rock is the Temppeliaukio Church, also know as the Church of the Rock. It is a Lutheran Church built in the late 1960’s inside the excavated rock. From the outside, the land appears mostly undisturbed, similar to the exposed rock clusters you’d find in Central Park, NYC. Inside, you find a gorgeous modern church, rock walls, copper ceiling with natural light warming the center.

Inside the Temppeliaukio Church, also know as the Church of the Rock.

Inside the Temppeliaukio Church, also know as the Church of the Rock.

A close up shot from underneath the Sibelius Monument.

A close up shot from underneath the Sibelius Monument.

We got on the bus to travel a short distance to our final stop on our tour, Sibelius Park. Here stands the Sibelius Monument to honor Finland’s great composer, Jean Sibelius.

Sibelius (1865-1957), was a prolific composer, particularly in the 1920’s and is probably best known for his composition, Finlandia and his symphonies.

Apparently, there was quite a controversy over the monument and its modern art design when it was erected in the late 1960’s. I love its design and think it’s a fitting tribute to the late composer.

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland.

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland.

Thousands of residents travel each day by the Helskini trams.

Thousands of residents travel each day by the Helskini trams.

So there are the highlights of our whirlwind tour of Helsinki. I really loved the blend of historic and modern architecture.

The city was busy, yet didn’t give you that overwhelming, rushed feeling that many new city surroundings can give you.

I was also impressed by the elaborate transportation options in the city. Fewer cars and many bicycles, trains, buses and trams for travel.

I’d definitely visit Helsinki again.

Back on the Voyager, we ended the day with a fabulous dinner followed by this breathtaking sunset. A perfect ending to perfect day.

Finnish sunset on the Baltic Sea.

Finnish sunset on the Baltic Sea.

Next stop: Russia.

Baltic Cruise Day Two: Turku, Finland

I never in my life thought I’d visit Finland. I’d never heard of Turku before the cruise, so I had no real expectations. Exploring the unknown is always a real adventure.

At every port we had multiple excursions to choose from and Michael and I booked all of ours online months before the cruise to take advantage of the best options. We learned later that as tours filled up, often new ones were opened. For the most part, we got our first choices at each port.

Turku Castle

Turku Castle

Turku is the oldest city in Finland, believed to be founded towards the end of the thirteenth century. An important

Finnish city, it is probably best know as an important seaport for commercial and passenger ships.

Of the available tours, we chose “Turku Castle, Naantali & Ruissalo” giving us the opportunity to experience three different communities in Finland. There was also the opportunity to explore Turku on your own– but as first time visitors we thought we’d get the most from an organized excursion.

The Inner Courtyard at Turku Castle.

The Inner Courtyard at Turku Castle.

Let me say here, as a rule, I’m not a big fan of tours. I would prefer to move along at my own pace, taking more time in areas of interest, skipping through others and stopping for photos along the way. When you’re on a bus with a tight itinerary, or even on foot, it can get a little frustrating. I took very few photos on the buses because they just don’t turn out well. At every port we passed many areas I would have liked to explore. Throughout our trip though, we felt it was the best introduction to foreign countries. We now have a better idea of what countries and towns we’d like to return to for a longer visit. I’d also like to add, with one exception, all of our local tour guides were really great at what they do.

Medieval Art at Turku Castle.

Medieval Art at Turku Castle.

Our first stop was Turku Castle. Building of the medieval castle began around the year 1280 and then it was later expanded during the 16th century. Extremely well preserved, it is the most prominent symbol of Turku and a popular tourist destination.

I found great beauty in the massive structure and was particular fond of the inner courtyard and the surviving medieval paintings that adorned the inner walls. The large chapel also displayed some interesting and unique artifacts.

Inside Turku Castle.

Inside Turku Castle.

The main street in Naantali, Finland.

The main street in Naantali, Finland.

Our second stop was the city of Naantali. It is considered an important summer tourist destination in Finland. The year-round population is less than 20,000 but increases substantially during the summer months.

One thing I learned, that seemed to be a common theme in most of the countries we visited, is that unlike families in the United States, most families in these countries have some sort of a vacation home for relaxation in the warm summer months . In the US it is more the exception than the norm.

Naantali Church.

Naantali Church.

We had free time to wander around Naantali Old Town and harbor on our own. Though it was bustling with the activities of tourists and and summer residents, we enjoyed the peaceful, relaxing atmosphere it had to offer.

We wandered off the main street, down alleyways and through some of the residential paths lined with small cottages. Attracted by a bell tower, ended up spending the most time on the grounds of the medieval Naantali church and cemetery. It was all so quiet and serene. A nice contrast to the more densely populated city of Turku, giving us a broader glimpse of Finnish life.

The cemetery at Naantali Church.

The cemetery at Naantali Church.

Naantali Harbor

Naantali Harbor

The barn of a secluded home on the island of Ruissalo.

Our final stop of the day was the island of Ruissalo, in the Archipelago Sea, southwest of the city of Turku. Ruissalo has a very small population of just a few hundred residents and is best known for their annual Ruisrock music festival.

We walked along the water, down a path past quaint, secluded homes and enjoyed the warm sunny afternoon and fresh air before returning to the ship for dinner, followed by Patti LuPone’s highly-anticipated concert.

A sailboat at the island of Ruissalo.

A sailboat at the island of Ruissalo.

Baltic Cruise Day One: Onboard Regent Seven Seas Voyager

Sunrise on Regent Seven Seas Voyager.

Sunrise on Regent Seven Seas Voyager.

We were picked up at the Sheraton Stockholm around noon on Sunday (August 4) and transported across town to the port to board our home for the next ten days, Regent Seven Seas Voyager. Our luggage was delivered directly to our room from the hotel, so we didn’t have to drag it through Passport Control before getting on the ship.

Regent is a luxury cruise line currently operating only three smaller ships in their fleet and soon adding a fourth. Our ship, Voyager, accommodates a maximum of 700 passengers in “all suite, all balcony” rooms. It boasts all the amenities of larger ships, including four dining rooms all providing delicious regional cuisine.

As we expected, it was a mostly older clientele (50 and above) but there were a small number a children and teens aboard as well.

On this particular sailing, half the ship had been reserved for Playbill’s Broadway On the High Seas 3 event and the entire ship was booked to capacity.

As with most cruises, once you board the ship you are directed to the pool deck where a buffet style lunch was available, while the rooms were being readied. One of the full service dining rooms was also open, La Veranda, which is where Michael and I chose to eat. After a light lunch, we headed to our room to unpack before the mandatory evacuation drill.

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Voyager Cruise Director, Willie Aames.

I have to stop here and say that as the periodic announcements were being made: welcoming us aboard and directing us where to go… I kept thinking– that voice is so familiar. When we finally got to our room and turned on the ship’s information channel on the TV… there he was, larger than life… our Cruise Director, Willie Aames. Yes, THAT Willie Aames.–TV star from the 70’s and 80’s, most notably, in my life for the series Eight Is Enough and Charges In Charge.

Willie is a phenomenal Cruise Director. He was always out and about and so very friendly. Every time I heard his voice it just made me smile. It was a piece of home– a part of my past that felt so welcoming and inviting. Am I one of the few people that didn’t know he was also a fully ordained minister?

So back to my least favorite part of any cruise– the evacuation drill. I know they are necessary and for our own safety but why do they have to take so long? I do have to say it was run very efficiently and we had the bonus of getting our first glimpse of all the Broadway performers who were also in our lifeboat station. Spotting and watching them certainly made the time go faster.

Sailing in the Archipelago Sea.

Sailing in the Archipelago Sea.

Soon, we were sailing in the beautiful Archipelago Sea , through the Baltic to our first stop– Turku, Finland. Since the sun doesn’t set until around 11 pm, we had some time to enjoy the spectacular view of the world’s largest archipelago (island group) before dark.

The rest of the evening was spent exploring the ship, attending the Broadway Meet and Greet (I’ll talk more about this in a later post), and dinner.

The Voyager is a beautiful ship and the only way I really noticed its smaller size was that everything was in close proximity. There are no long, endless corridors like the larger ships. For exercise, I took the stairs whenever possible. We were on deck nine, and mostly used decks four through eleven. The layout of the ship is very similar to the larger ships we’ve been on and very easy to navigate.

From top to bottom, the staff and crew of Voyager were the very best. I can’t imagine any better. Everyone was so friendly and attentive and made every moment on board enjoyable.IMG_3016

This was our fourth cruise and by far, the best ship experience. We also met a lot of wonderful people and exchanged contact information with some of them so we could stay in touch. That’s never happened before.

I highly recommend Regent and hope we have a chance to sail with them again in the near future.

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Regent Seven Seas Voyager .

Voyager Pool Deck.

Voyager Pool Deck.

The Horizon Lounge.

The Horizon Lounge.

A view from the top.

A view from the top.

(Stay tuned for more of our trip. I’m trying to break in down a little differently for easier reading. We were constantly on the go and at times it was a little overwhelming. Hopefully, this format will be easy to follow. Thanks for reading!)