At the very end of their Christmas show, running through December 30th at the Imperial Theater on Broadway, Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken together sing the 19th century Christmas carol “O Holy Night.” Their duet is so lovely and powerful it seems to pierce the heavens.
It would be mean-spirited and inaccurate to say the two hours preceding it feel like a trip through hell. The feeling is more like a trip to the moon, since so much of “Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show” – which is the show’s official, and alarming, title – is made of cheese.
It begins, for example, with an imitation of Star Wars’ portentous scrolling text, which a slick TV announcer reads aloud, about “an epic battle the likes of which had never before been seen. A clash of the titans,” their “final showdown…seen by over 40 million people.” This is a reference to the second season of American Idol, when Studdard and Aiken battled it out for first place, with Studdard winning. This was surely intended as parody, but just comes off as overblown.
Fifteen years after their titanic clash, the two still have strong voices — if anything, their singing has improved. But there is less of it in their show than one might have expected. Yes, there are 25 Christmas songs – actually more, since several are medleys. The singing duties, however, are shared by five other cast members, and the music is interspersed with so many lame skits and silly jokes and sentimental videos that the evening toggles in tone and format between TV variety show special, Reality Television, and infomercial. It feels, in short, like a TV show – one with low ratings in a lesser market — not something one would pay as much as $159 to see on Broadway.
Of course, some “ones” may be willing to pay anything to see their idols. This seems to be what producer Jeffrey Chrzczon is banking on. He made the same bet last year, producing “Home for the Holidays,” which got scathing reviews and flopped at the box office.
Let others scoff. It makes sense for producers to fill empty theaters with holiday shows. Currently, “The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays” is running for five weeks and “Celebrity Autobiography” for four Mondays, both at the Marquis , which isn’t scheduled for another show until “Tootsie” starts in March. After Ruben and Clay’s Christmas show ends in December, there isn’t another show scheduled at the Imperial until “Ain’t Too Proud” starts, also in March.
It’s possible that Studdard and Aiken will fare better in their three-week run with critics and theatergoers alike. After all, it isn’t fun to trash a show that features such likable performers who seem genuinely goodhearted; after intermission, we’re shown a surprisingly lengthy film about the National Inclusion Project , which Aiken co-founded in 2003 to provide camping, recreational and social experiences for children with disabilities.
A portion of the ticket sales, we’re told, will be contributed to this charity.
And the fans who show up for Ruben and Clay may have enough goodwill toward them not just to tolerate the tacky touches too numerous to inventory; they may actively enjoy some of the limp routines.
In what counts as the sole stab at audience participation, Aiken picks a theatergoer to come up on stage and asks her a series of questions – what color do you hate the most? Who’s your favorite one-name star? These are put together for a mad-lib version of the 12 Days of Christmas. To save time, the seven cast members sang all 12 verses just once, and only substituted the new words in the last seven days, keeping everything from five golden rings to a partridge in a pear tree– which was odd, but merciful.
In the opening number, Ruben and Clay sing snippets of traditional Christmas songs, starting with Silent Night, as part of a schtick in which they are trying to one-up each other. First Clay comes out in a tuxedo, then Ruben in a tuxedo with sequins, then Clay in a blindingly flashy silver tuxedo jacket; then Ruben with a sparkling robe AND three female backup singers in red sequined choir robes, then Clay in top hat and tails AND two male backup singers, then Ruben….well, you get the idea. Like most of the bits in the show, this one isn’t especially polished, nor even all that funny. But it’s fun-loving.
Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged.
“Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show”
Written by Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce, Directed by Jonathan Tessero. Musical staging by Lisa Shriver, music direction by Ben Cohn. Scenic design by Rob Bissinger, lighting design by Paul Miller, costume design by James Brown III, sound design by Bruce Landon Yauger , projection design by Jason Lee Courson
Cast: Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Farah Alvin, Ken Arpino, Julian Diaz-Granados, La’Nette Wallace,Khaila Wilcoxon
Running time: Two hours including an intermission.
Tickets: $39 to $159
“Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show” runs through December 30, 2018