They’re a small, presumably tightly knit group of singers, musicians and performers but the cast and crew from Carnival Cruise Line’s ‘Playlist Productions’ division are capable of leaving audiences spellbound on a nearly nightly basis.

Theatre entertainment on cruise ships is something which the different brands have invested in heavily over the past few years, with some going down the path of bringing popular land-based Broadway style shows onboard their ships. But as we found on a recent Carnival Spirit voyage, you don’t necessarily need a proven or long-running land-based stage spectacular in order to win over your passengers – a prodigiously talented cast, well known music and a series of engaging, high energy scenes can do exactly that. Playlist Productions proves it.

When you notice it in your Carnival ‘Fun Times’ program as the show for the evening, you may also notice a little thing preceding it called “Pre-Show Fun”, starting about half an hour earlier. If you’re so inclined and are ready for your night a bit earlier, head on down and if nothing else, it will give you the pick of the room in terms of where you sit.

Up on stage, the “Fun” consists of the ship’s resident pianist standing at a decorative but still functional piano, playing a number of lounge-style tunes with high levels of audience interaction. One of the advantages of attending this pre-show is that you will be invited to visit the stage to place your vote for one of three songs which will serve as the closing number for the main production itself. There’s little theatrical value in the pre-show but it will allow you to settle into your preferred seats and ensure you have your drinks well in advance of showtime.

Thomas Owens delivers a low-key intro to a very high-key production with 88 Keys.
It’s a low-key pre-show to 88 Keys but it’s worth paying attention or you might miss something.

However, take note that when showtime is actually due to occur, you probably won’t notice it when it does. In what seems like little more than a change of pianist, one man exits and another – Thomas Owens – comes in and picks up where the first left off. It isn’t until a few more songs, after Billy Joel’s legendary hit ‘Piano Man’ comes on, that you’ll notice the stage is filling up with more people who become the dancers and other members of the cast. It happens quite nonchalantly so if you’re engaged in conversation with other cruisers sitting nearby, you might not notice the show has indeed started.

From there, you’re transfixed as one great musical number follows another. As the name of the show suggests, 88 Keys focuses on the piano as the central instrument and indeed, the first few numbers involve the same piano used in the pre-show, albeit with the addition of a nice 1970’s log-cabin bar setting.

As the focal point of the performance is the piano, the pattern of the music will soon become apparent as popular pop songs from some of history’s greatest musicians who played the piano in much of their act, such as more of Billy Joel and his hits ‘Movin Out’ and ‘Angry Young Man’. This continued with Elton John’s ‘Crocodile Rock’ and ‘Bennie and the Jets’, Ray Charles’ ‘Hit the road Jack’, Carole King’s ‘I feel the earth move’ and many more.

88 Keys performs on Carnival Spirit.
88 Keys ramps up from a low-key beginning into the powerful production it becomes.

Each song carries with it a change of scenery, which in some cases can be quite drastic. Early in the show, the show moves from the aforementioned warm and comfortable bar scene, led by Owens as a casual piano player into a dark and somewhat gothic adaptation of music which many people wouldn’t normally associate with such settings. As there are only eight performers in the Playlist Productions troupe on Carnival Spirit, the cast is severely limited by time in terms of how elaborate their costumes can be before they’re due back out on the stage for their next number.

The dance routines are flawless throughout the show and special props must go to the main star Thomas Owens who is incandescent and delivers one high-energy routine after another, all featuring piano and lyrics reflective of an experienced performer far beyond his years. He is backed by an equally luminous supporting cast who work to make Owens look even better than he already does. But as much as Owens plays more of a focal role than others, at times he effortlessly drops back into line with his counterparts and becomes just part of the team.

On occasion, the ladies in the troupe steal the spotlight with a sultry number with a girl in a cocktail dress straddling a piano, reminiscent of a smoky war-time lounge.

Great flexible entertainment in Carnival Spirit's Playlist Productions.
While Owens is in a costume change, another Playlist Productions member easily steps in to deliver a powerful number.

And then, to further drive home how much effort the choreographers and producers have already contributed to the show, it is the closing number which it later emerges was the song chosen by the votes received by the audience in the pre-show. On this case, it was Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ which closed the show with a resounding bang.

Keep your eyes on close watch for when 88 Keys appears as your evening entertainment and if you can, plan your day to allow an opportunity to catch one of the two performances. It’s a relatively short show with a cast to whom you grow more and more familiar with as each scene passes. But the electricity generated with each number makes the relative duration feel longer and leaves audiences more than satisfied and sufficiently energised to go on and make the night a memorable one.

Playlist Productions on Carnival Spirit delivers a great 88 Keys show.
Make time to see 88 Keys or you’ll have to come back to catch what you missed.