Review: ‘Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show’ at the Imperial Theatre

Well known to tens of millions of television viewers as the top two contenders on American Idol’s blockbuster second season in 2003, BFFs Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken are celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of their historic singing competition with a new holiday show for all ages. Playing a limited three-week engagement at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre, Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show – aka Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show – features a fast-paced selection of seasonal songs, silly skits, and incidents of their ongoing tongue-in-cheek rivalry (that leave little time for the full long-winded title!), along with a serious message about finding the true meaning of the yuletide spirit in hope, love, friendship, and giving.

Clay Aiken, La’Nette Wallace, Farah Alvin, Khaila Wilcoxon, and Ruben Studdard. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Clay Aiken, La’Nette Wallace, Farah Alvin, Khaila Wilcoxon, and Ruben Studdard. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Written by Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce, and directed by Jonathan Tessero, the production is presented in the format of an old-fashioned 1960s TV variety show, with vintage-style humor and pop-culture references, including an introduction aptly inspired by Star Wars (setting the stage for the recurrent joke of the sparring singers’ ongoing contest to determine whose name should be listed first), a variety of ugly holiday sweaters ‘made’ and worn by the ensemble (the terrific Farah Alvin, Ken Arpino, Julian Diaz-Granados, La’Nette Wallace, and Khaila Wilcoxon, who join the stars in both the light-hearted festivities and the familiar songs), and a recreation of the famous Joke Wall from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, with the members of the cast popping their heads out to deliver the sometimes risqué gags (e.g., “What’s the difference between a snowman and a snowwoman?”).

But don’t worry, parents; when the humor and language begin to veer in the direction of mild vulgarity (“What the f . . . alala?”) or, worse yet, to current politics, they have to put a dollar in the Christmas curse stocking (which figures prominently as another running gag throughout the show). Though not all of the intended humor hits the mark (like the tired jokes about the rats on the streets of New York and Aiken’s selfie with the audience that catches a philandering man), there’s a lot of corny laughs and goofy fun designed to bring a sense of old-time cheer to the holiday season, and an occasional new twist to the old standards (the show’s politically-correct take on the now-controversial #MeToo lyrics to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is hilarious, as is Studdard’s impersonation of a revivalist preacher).

While the segments of sketch comedy and good-natured ribbing highlight the long-time camaraderie between the two stars, the selection of classic Christmas carols, popular holiday songs, medleys of traditional favorites, and original numbers showcase Studdard’s smooth and soulful jazz-, blues-, and gospel-infused stylings and Aiken’s powerhouse vocals, effortlessly hitting and holding the big notes. From their opening black tie sing-off, alternating between “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” in increasingly over-the-top sequined costumes, to their harmonious closing duet on “O Holy Night,” they consistently affirm their popular status as “American idols” to the innumerable fans of their award-winning talent.

Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The duo and ensemble are given fine support by a live five-piece band (with music direction by Ben Cohn), amusing musical staging (by Lisa Shriver), a colorful design (set by Rob Bissinger, lighting by Paul Miller, costumes by James Brown III, and projections by Jason Lee Courson) that evoke the TV style of the Pop Sixties, and by audience participation in helping to create a wacky new version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

A big part of the holiday joy that the show engenders consists of videos of the men’s reminiscences and reflections on the significance of Christmas, and segments spotlighting the National Inclusion Project, co-founded by Aiken to advocate for children with disabilities to have increased opportunities and access to all recreational and social activities. So along with being entertained by Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show, a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to benefit this important organization. That makes Ruben and Clay real American idols and true shining stars.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.

Photo by Mark Hill.
Photo by Mark Hill.

Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show plays through Sunday, December 30, 2018, performing at the Imperial Theatre – 249 West 45th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.

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