By Sarah Downs
The three words I would use to describe Ruben and Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show 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 t.v. 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.
Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show; written by Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce, directed by Jonathan Tessero, music coordination by Michael Aarons, musical staging by Lisa Shriver, starring Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken; featuring Farah Alvin, Ken Arpino, Julian Diaz-Granados, La’Nette Wallace and Khaila Wilcoxon. Rob Bissinger, scenic design; Paul Miller, lighting; James Brown III, costumes; Bruce Landon Yauger, sound design; Jason Lee Courson, projection design; Ben Cohn and John Jackson, musical arrangements. Playing through December 30th at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th St. For tickets go to www.rubenandclay.com or call 212 -239-6200. Run time: 2 hours with one intermission.