Contributing Critic - New York City
“Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show” panders and meanders its way through a muddy mix of Christmas songs and jokes, that equal parts put you in the holiday spirit as they do put you to sleep. The show, written by Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce, plays out as if it were a talent show put on by eager children in a living room pining for love, attention, and approval, but with a budget. Considering the titular stars got their start on the iconic singing reality show “American Idol,” however, this tongue-in-cheek reunion show delivers a present to fans new and old, where, as long as you are familiar with their expansive voices and personalities, this show delivers you the perfect nostalgia kick to 2003—if that’s what you’re looking for.
Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard have nothing short of electrifying voices that soar through the Imperial Theatre. The best moments in the show feature one or both of the stars singing alone on stage with just a microphone and a curtain, no spectacle needed as their Billboard-, American Music-, and Grammy-winning talent speaks volumes for itself. They both shine their brightest during these moments structured more simply like their familiar territory of a concert; however, the scenes (between all the songs you came to hear) drag, with direction by Jonathan Tessero vacillating between facetious and sincere.
Act one guides us through a hilarious opening number homage to Broadway that sets us up for a remount of the duo’s 2003 rivalry of who is the better singer. This trope extends to the scenes, where we see Reuben’s dry humor steal the show, with Clay playing more as a patronizing parent supervising the raucous Christmas party after everyone’s had too much eggnog. Clay muddles his way through his own endeared dad jokes, helped mightily by the strong ensemble gathered to support the two in comedy and harmony. Farah Alvin, Ken Arpino (also writer), Julian Diaz-Granados, La’Nette Wallace, and Khaila Wilcoxon exude comedic timing and incredible voices, giving their all to every millionth medley with gusto and boundless Christmas cheer that deserves huge applause for being all but Farah’s Broadway debuts. Worth mentioning is a special audience interaction moment in act two, where the whole cast sings their hearts out with the audience and connects with adoring fans, the mask of the show falling to give way to honest connection and pure joy.
This mask of insincerity is most prevalent in act one, where a vague semblance of a plot is construed revolving around Ruben and Clay hosting a Christmas party and gift exchange where the two try to one-up each other. They establish early on in the show that they have a “swear sock,” a giant red stocking Ruben has to put money into if anything vulgar or inappropriate is said for this “family fun show.” Clay makes it clear that politics are also off-limits, eliciting cheers and applause from a baby-boomer audience waiting for them to start singing the next Christmas song. However ironic this may have been coming from someone who ran for North Carolina’s house seat in 2004, the irony continues through the act where we see a Fortnite-playing, Tide Pod-eating, millennial Ghost of Christmas Future that Clay and Ruben dismiss as foolish, despite their Christmas fate insight and warning coming true. Continuing this blatant provocation of politics while simultaneously claiming denial, the glorious Ms. Alvin has the unfortunate task of singing an updated “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” after the show acknowledges the outdated lyrics, but in this version the man insists the woman leave and the woman is the one trying to stay and throw herself on him. These moments have no direct impact on any other part in the show or plot, and they stand out as a misfiring or miscommunication of tone, not being able to make up its mind about what the message or tone of the show itself is. Act two continues with virtually no resemblance to act one except a Christmas party finale, and Ruben and Clay shine here able to finally play themselves instead of hazy mock-ups.
The show takes a turn for the better after allowing the two to bare their souls with songs that have meaning for them (“Emmanuel” / “Grown Up Christmas List”). They are supported by lighting design by Paul Miller and projection design by Jason Lee Courson that help tell their stories and literally shed new light on these classic tunes, while also incorporating elements of humor and fun in group medleys and general holiday chaos that elicit laughs. The set design by Rob Bissinger is warm and inviting, where you truly feel as if Ruben and Clay are just talking to you in your living room or church or somewhere equally inviting. Costumes by James Brown III are sleek, dashing, and witty as needed, aiding the performers in both visual gags and sophisticated eleven o’clock numbers. While the show has an identity crisis about clear message, it does contain a number of inventive Christmas jokes that give the ensemble good material to move the show at a brisk pace.
Ultimately, the songs and velvet voices of the stars will leave you filled with warmth and good-will toward all. A portion of the show’s proceeds go to help the National Inclusion Project for children with disabilities.
RUBEN & CLAY’S FIRST ANNUAL CHRISTMAS CAROL FAMILY FUN PAGEANT SPECTACULAR REUNION SHOW
“Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show,” written by Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce, directed by Jonathan Tessero, stars Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Farah Alvin, Ken Arpino, Julian Diaz-Granados, La’Nette Wallace, and Khaila Wilcoxon. Performances begin December 7th ahead of a December 11th, 2018 opening at the Imperial Theatre.
The design team includes Rob Bissinger (Scenic), Paul Miller (Lighting), James Brown III (Costumes), Bruce Landon Yauger (Sound), Jason Lee Courson (Projection), Lisa Shriver (Musical Staging), Michael Aarons (Music Coordinator), and Ben Cohn and John Jackson (Arrangements & Orchestrations).
“Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show” runs at the Imperial Theatre (249 West 45th Street) through December 30, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.telecharge.com, by calling 212.239.6200, or by visiting the Imperial Theatre box office (249 West 45th Street). For more information, please visit http://www.rubenandclay.com.
Photo: Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. Photo by Mark Hill.