'Ruben & Clay's First Annual Christmas Show': Theater Review

Ruben & Clay's Christmas Show - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of Carol Rosegg
The title is wishful thinking.

Fifteen years after they competed on 'American Idol,' Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken reunite for this holiday-themed Broadway variety show.

Fifteen years after they competed on what was then the country's hottest television show, American Idol, singers Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken have joined together for a holiday-themed Broadway show optimistically dubbed Ruben & Clay's First Annual Christmas Show. This is a reunion for which no one was clamoring.

The show, whose full title is Ruben & Clay's First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show (that's the last time I'll be mentioning it, since I don't get paid by the word), attempts to recreate the spirit of vintage television variety specials. Given that it captures the cheesiness of such endeavors, the evening, featuring high school-worthy production values, accomplishes its apparent goal. It even begins with a video of a Star Wars-style crawl, which brings back memories not of the film series but rather its infamous offshoot, the Star Wars Holiday Special.   

The opening number makes clear the pain about to befall both the performers and the audience. The two "sworn adversaries" sing Christmas songs including "Silent Night" while irritatedly attempting to outdo each other with costumes and effects. Studdard dresses up like the Phantom of the Opera, and Aiken sings while suspended several feet in the air. Considering the religious significance of the holiday, the latter image brings up uncomfortable associations.

The two men then proceed to engage in mock insults and comic bantering, demonstrating that as comedians they make fine singers. They also take a selfie of themselves with the audience, although whether they'll want a souvenir of this experience is questionable.

Writers Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce vainly attempt to have their stars (and their five backup singers Arpino, Farah Alvin, Julian Diaz-Granados, La'Nette Wallace and Khaila Wilcoxon, who should be earning battle pay for gamely managing to smile throughout) deliver comedy sketches as well as holiday music. But the material is truly cringeworthy, including the segments apparently inspired by Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, wherein the performers stick their heads out of holes in the curtain to deliver painfully unfunny, pun-filled one-liners. The nadir is a tasteless gag involving Studdard taking advantage of an onstage "chimney toilet." In the second half, an unfortunate audience member is brought onstage for a game of "Holiday Mad-Libs" that results in an excruciating parody of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

"You guys talk too much," one of the supporting players jokingly tells the principals, and truer words were never spoken. While Aiken, who once appeared on Broadway in Monty Python's Spamalot, has some decent comic chops, Studdard is simply adrift, delivering his lines in a stiff monotone suggesting he'd rather be using that onstage toilet.  

A truly clueless segment features the two stars emotionally describing their feelings about the holiday in videotaped interviews intercut throughout their live renditions of Christmas songs. The stories they tell, including Studdard's account of his close relationship with his late brother, are actually quite moving. But we're left wondering why the hell they're recounting them onscreen when they're standing right in front of us.

The show is so desperate to feel like a television special that it even includes a PSA, in this case one about the National Inclusion Project, an organization devoted to helping children with disabilities. It's a worthy cause, to be sure, and it's nice to know that it will be receiving a portion of the show's proceeds. But people paying Broadway prices really don't want to watch commercials (and the disastrous first week's grosses suggest there won't be many of them).

It's a shame, because both Aiken and Studdard have lovely voices. When given the too-rare opportunity simply to sing, they deliver beautifully wrought renditions of numerous holiday standards. Their finest moment comes in the encore, in which their powerful vocals are fully front and center. But after nearly two-and-a-half hours, the theatrical eggnog has long since curdled.  

Venue: Imperial Theatre, New York
Cast: Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Farah Alvin, Ken Arpino, Julian Diaz-Granados, La'Nette Wallace, Khaila Wilcoxon
Writers: Ken Arpino, Jesse Joyce
Director: Jonathan Tessero
Musical director: Ben Cohn
Musical staging: Lisa Shriver
Set designer: Rob Bissinger
Lighting designer: Paul Miller
Costume designer: James Brown III
Sound designer: Bruce Landon Yauger
Projection designer: Jason Lee Courson
Presented by Jeffrey Chrzczon, Side Effects Include, Josh Pultz/Amplified Entertainment