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Cruise ship gives Manchester singer/dancer a chance to shine

Sunday, April 13, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

NORWEGIAN STAR, Somewhere in the Pacific -- Call it the nautical version of Off-Off Broadway. We were a few hundred miles south of Honolulu the first time I saw 20-year-old Martel Brown sing and dance.

A member of the Jean Ann Ryan Co., which provides entertainment for the Norwegian Cruise Line, Martel is a Pittsburgher. But I didn't know that the first night my family watched him perform in "Music of the Night," featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes.

How Martel got from piano lessons at age 5 to a practice room at Point Park College to the stage of the Stardust Theater in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is quite a story.

Two and a half years ago, the Manchester musician was a freshman practicing a dance routine at Point Park when someone came in to announce there were auditions downstairs for a cruise ship. "On Thursday I was in Pittsburgh; by Sunday I was flying away. In less than two weeks I was in Honduras. I was 18."

It's always serendipitous to run into Western Pennsylvanians when traveling. My adopted motto is this: "No amount of planning beats dumb luck."

As it happens, my luck struck in the ship's yoga class. As I had promised my Ross teacher, I showed up for "yoga stretch" three times during the cruise. It's not easy to hold a pose in the sway of a ship at sea, but our leader, Elizabeth, provided alternative positions for those of us who might slip while sailing. I went up to thank her, and mentioned I was from Pittsburgh. (It never hurts to brag on the hometown.)

"Why, one of my best friends on the ship is from Pittsburgh!" she said.

"Pittsburgh, not Philadelphia?" I asked. So many non-Pennsylvania people get our cities mixed up.

"Pittsburgh," she said with a yoga-mellow smile. "He's getting ready to dance in 'It's Fame' tonight, but I'll tell him you'd like to chat."

Next day, I met up with Martel at the reception desk and there was no mistaking him. He moved with the leopard-like ease of a dancer. He is not tall -- 5 feet, 7 inches or so, says his grandmother, Elzula Suber of Manchester -- but not a gram of fat showed through his skin-tight shirt.

"We get weighed once a week," he says, "but I don't have trouble with my weight. Of course, I'm young, but I eat all the time. Oreos, Wendy's, any food I want from any of the ship's restaurants."

He especially looks forward to the Star's quesadillas and adds, "I love the spicy tuna at the Ginza," the Asian fusion restaurant. He enjoys all kinds of vegetables. "I don't like string beans, but I eat broccoli, peas, squash, and beef, chicken, liver."

At 155 pounds, he counts himself "lucky" not to have to count calories in an atmosphere where it's all you can eat all of the time. "Of course, we can't be busting our seams, and I do have to be able to lift the girls in the dances."

For a young man eager to see the world -- he's already been to the Great Wall of China and the volcanoes of Hawaii -- it's a good job. He has a single room on Deck 3 and makes $500 a week, plus anything he wants to eat and drink (except booze).

"I only work three days a week," he says.

They're 14-hour days, though. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the cast "runs the show" at 9 or 10 a.m. Then he eats lunch and sleeps all afternoon to conserve energy for back-to-back shows at 7:30 and 9:30 that evening.

Working on a cruise ship is a cultural exchange. Young people from more than 30 countries work aboard the Star. They are bright, attractive, energetic and apt students of English. Some, of course, seem homesick as they talk of when they may return to Thailand or Romania or India for two months off. It would be difficult to find a more good-natured crew.

Their jobs can expand, too. One morning, we happened on my yoga instructor, Elizabeth, who works on the fitness staff, checking us off the ship for an excursion, and Martel may appear in a fashion show for the gift shop. Sometimes he plays the tourist and goes on day trips on the islands. His grandmother saw him perform when she took a 17-day cruise through the Panama Canal that included the rain forests. "He's been all over the world," she says.

Although Martel is free on the shows' off-days with no need to change from waiter's garb to dancing shoes, he does lots of costume changes onstage, six in the Webber show, seven in "It's Fame," including one that must be accomplished in 45 seconds. "It wouldn't be so bad, but I go off one side of the stage and come in on the other," he says.

In the hubbub backstage, it's "Good-bye, modesty, Hello, strip-tease," as the men and women slip and slide into new outfits together. One night, Martel ended up with a female dancer's vest, and the two worked the exchange into the show. "We laugh -- we have fun up there," he says.

Though it isn't something Martel might discuss with his siblings, Devin, 12, Miranda, 10, or Malik, 3, he admits the show has a Broadway flavor with a certain "T & A factor."

Martel says his father, Martel Brown Sr., who lives in Troy Hill, wasn't too keen on his son choosing a stage career. "But then I started earning money, and it was OK," Martel laughs. His mother, Pamela Jackson-Glenn, lives in Manchester.

It was his grandfather, Odell Suber, who took him on the bus to piano lessons when he was 5. Later, Martel studied clarinet and several other instruments. In eighth grade, he enrolled in Rogers School of Performing Arts, a Pittsburgh Public magnet school. "It opened me up to dance," he recalls. "I never danced until I was 15, and then I got this job."

His grandfather died Dec. 22, and Martel flew home for the funeral, where he sang a solo and played the piano.

Martel, who had performed with the CLO MiniStars, had a scholarship at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre while a student at CAPA (Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts) when his chance at a ballet career came to an end. He fell while doing a handstand off a chair in his living room and got a compound fracture in his elbow. That arm is still shorter than the other.

This meant a transfer to Oliver High School, though he kept busy as captain of the dance team, cheerleader and drum major of the marching band. In October 2000, he had just started Point Park College when singing and dancing at sea called.

That first cruise, shall we say, was a challenge. He was the youngest in the troupe in an entertainment job that he says draws "the young on the way up and the old" (well, not as old as us passengers). There was tension in the troupe. "They kept pushing me down and pushing me down."

All that changed when Jean Ann Ryan visited the ship and saw him perform. He was moved up to singer/dancer and got "bigger roles, better roles." Now he's cruising the Hawaiian Islands, or at least until his six-month contract ends May 13. After that, he might audition for another cruise.

Whatever stages he ends up on, he'll always have a niche in my cruise memories. In his last show of our week aboard, he danced in counterpoint to a Chinese Stars Acrobat Co. dancer in "Cirque Asia." Dressed only in white pants, in sharp contrast to his muscled torso, Martel Brown was high energy all the way. His smile lighted up the stage.

Even relaxing in the lounge as he talks to me, he exudes style. He'd just come off a night of dancing in "It's Fame." His eyes sparkle.

"The glitter does not come off," he says with a grin.

But his gratitude does: "I owe everything to my grandfather, who took me to those piano lessons."

PG tested recipes

Oreo Smash Hit

Dancer Martel Brown says he eats lots of Oreos to keep his energy up, but this fancy version using the old favorite is reminiscent of the Chocoholic Buffet on the Norwegian Star cruise ship, where he performs. The line was oh-so-long, but the chocolate offerings were breathtaking, albeit waist-expanding. We've never seen plates piled so high -- talk about "all you care to eat."

  • 1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream, softened

  • Crust:
  • 1 large package Oreo cookies, crushed
  • (we used 45)
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • Sauce:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup evaporated milk (save excess for another use)

Press crushed cookies (we used frosting and all) into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Drizzle butter evenly over crumbled cookies. Freeze for 1 hour.

Spread softened ice cream over frozen crust and return to freezer.

Bring sauce ingredients to a boil for 10 minutes in a saucepan, stirring often. (We used the microwave on Medium Low; be careful not to let it boil over.) Remove from heat. When cooled completely, pour sauce evenly over firm ice cream. Cover and return to freezer for at least 2 hours before serving. (The sauce stays soft.)

Serves 10 to 12.

Adapted from "Cook with Aloha: Favorite Recipes from Our Ohana to Yours."

Coconut Chicken Bites

An appetizer we enjoyed at our hotel our last evening in Honolulu was covered with coconut and macadamia nuts -- so we added the Hawaiian nuts to this recipe. The chicken is good alone or with Dijon mustard. We liked it best dipped in a sweet chili sauce from Thailand that was a gift from Lila and Lenie Lawrence, friends who live on Maui. Delicious!

  • 2 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut

  • 1 cup macadamia nuts, chopped
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Dijon mustard for dipping (or Thai sweet chili sauce)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake coconut on heavy large baking sheet until golden brown, stirring frequently, about 15 minutes. Transfer to bowl and cool. Coarsely grind coconut in batches in food processor and place on large plate. Coarsely chop macadamia nuts. Combine.

Spray 2 heavy large cookie sheets with cooking oil. (We baked on oiled parchment paper.)

In a large bowl, combine cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt and pepper. Add chicken pieces, turning to coat. Dip into beaten egg. Dredge chicken pieces in coconut-nut mixture, coating completely. Transfer to prepared sheet. Cover and chill for 1 hour. (Can be prepared one day in advance.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake chicken until crisp and golden brown, about 15 minutes, turning pieces over once. Arrange chicken on platter. Serve warm or at room temperature with Dijon mustard for dipping.

Serves 6 to 8.

Tester's note: Chicken fingers might also be used, and the baked "bites" could be served on a skewer for a portable appetizer.

Adapted from "Cook with Aloha: Favorite Recipes from Our Ohana to Yours"

Suzanne Martinson can be reached at smartinson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.

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