The three words I would use to describe Ruben & Clay's Christmas Show (aka Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show) at Broadway's Imperial Theatre are: overlong, amateurish and under-rehearsed. That being said, there is the kernel of something really workable in there, in the persons of Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard. Someone should have told the writers.
Here we have two men who have maintained careers since rising to fame 15 years ago on "American Idol" (no mean feat, considering how often TV competition show success is a flash in the pan.) Their voices are in good shape; they have a great attitude and a lot to offer in humor and experience. And yet, writers Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce bury the lead, as it were, in a series of unfunny jokes, including an inexcusable onstage toilet joke, and skits that they should have seen didn’t even work on paper. Add to that a rag-tag chorus of modestly talented singers who despite their wide-eyed, best intentions cannot rise above the material, and you have a show that continually trips over itself. You have to hand it to the cast that they keep picking themselves up after each fall.
The best moments in the show happen in the second act when onstage Ruben and Clay serenade video Ruben and Clay, talking about family and the value of friendship, with photographs of their younger selves flashing across the screen. You feel their authenticity. When they say they are like brothers you can see it is true. This is what we have been hungry for all evening, and yet we have had to wait over an hour and endure several comedic disasters, to get to it.
Perhaps even more inexplicable is the awkward non-ending ending. As the show draws to a close (finally), it follows the natural progression to the kind of uptempo number you want the audience to hum as it exits the theater. The song is fun, we’re ready to leave but the lights stay down. After an awkward pause the curtains open to reveal Studdard and Aiken, in spotlights on a dark stage. (Is the show starting again? Did they forget to do a number?) The music starts again, and Studdard and Aiken deliver their best performance of the evening, a stirring rendition of “Oh Holy Night.” It brings down the house, and rightly so. Why was this not the focal point of the evening, instead of some weird afterthought? Why? Why? Why?
This is not a show that should be on Broadway. The set is sweet; the lighting is colorful and the band is great, but the venue is too big, to say the least, especially for performers who don’t know how to work a theater. A smaller space would solve some of the problems. Among other things, it would render the title amusingly ironic; it would also mask Studdard’s less than comfortable physicality. He has a terrific, smooth jazz voice, but he spends too much time just standing there. If you’re not going to block people to fill out the stage, change the stage. This is a cabaret show that should be 90 minutes maximum with no intermission. Lose the chorus and focus on the two stars. It’s a no brainer.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
What the popular press says...
"When people talk about the miracle of Christmas, they may be referring to the lowering of critical standards the holidays seem to provoke. Maybe that explains certain sweaters, or how I found myself tapping my toes and nodding contentedly during Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show. But the production now playing at the Imperial Theater on Broadway actually has assets that would be effective any time of the year, especially if you happen to miss old-fashioned variety shows run by a pair of genial, bantering hosts."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Times
"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."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...