Toward the merciful end of “Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Show,” or as it is also called, “Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show,” gifts are exchanged. Out come the ugly Christmas sweaters, that cutesy sartorial staple of the holiday season. Unfortunately, those sweaters might serve as garish woolen metaphors for the show itself: you might smile indulgently at them for a bit, but pretty quickly you just want to look away.
Ruben and Clay, for the unfamiliar, are Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, onetime competitors and finalists on the second season of “American Idol.” Studdard ended up winning, with Aiken the runner-up. Both have since gone on to successful recording and performing careers, with Aiken even staging a quixotic run for Congress in his native North Carolina. (Runner-up again! He won the Democratic primary but lost the election.)
But it has been quite a while since they competed on that national television sing-off. Fifteen years represents a veritable eon in the world of entertainment, particularly with “American Idol’s” success spawning several similar talent-competition shows. And so, while Studdard and Aiken still possess impressive voices, they may have been a bit late in sending out invitations to their reunion party: At the preview I attended empty seats seemed to outnumber filled ones.
The production, directed by Jonathan Tessero, styles itself as a throwback to television variety shows of yore, mixing music with comedy. The hosts play at being still in competition, trying to out-sing each other or cueing up prank gags to one-up each other, resulting in their names being switched back and forth, vying for supremacy, in the show’s title. But the writing, by Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce, doesn’t exactly recall the heady heyday of, say, “The Carol Burnett Show.” Sample bit of bickering banter: Ruben to Clay: “You’re named after a hunk of dirt.” Clay’s retort: “You’re named after a greasy sandwich.”
As that more elaborate title suggests — a singular example of a show’s title protesting too much — the stocking is stuffed to bursting with Christmas carols of both secular and religious stripes. We hear all (or most) of staples like “Silver Bells,” “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” “The First Noel” and, for a finale, “O Holy Night.”
There are also not one but two medleys. The first compiles Christmas songs from movies. Some I’d never heard of and hope never to again, like “This Christmas” from, apparently, the movie of the same title, which occasions a feeble who’s-on-first-type exchange between Ruben and Clay. The second medley is a whizzing romp through snippets of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and — sorry, my head is going to explode if I have to continue the list. I cannot offhand think of a carol that goes uncaroled. It probably would have been wise to disrupt the endless and eventually wearying loop of Christmas songs by including some of the pop songs that brought Studdard and Aiken fame in their initial appearances on “American Idol.”
Both performers have likable, nicely contrasted personas: Studdard the burly teddy-bear type with a beaming smile and a touch of sassy aggression, Aiken the frisky, borderline-nerdy imp whom Studdard aptly likens to an overgrown elf. But their comic banter mostly has the strained and saggy feeling of, well, artificially crafted comic banter.
Haphazard, only mildly amusing gambits include a teenage Ghost of Christmas Future, who apparently died prematurely after trying the Tide Pod challenge (tasteless, that), and who takes a swipe at “Dear Evan Hansen” (dumb, that, considering this show that will not likely be vying for multiple Tonys at season’s end). There’s a joke about those long CVS receipts, and, evoking the TV variety-show theme, a sheet falls down at a couple of points, representing an advent calendar and occasioning a barrage of dumdum jokes (“What nationality is Santa Claus?” “North Polish”) that recalls “Laugh-In.” (A show that hasn’t aged too well either, come to think of it.)
Studdard and Aiken are accompanied by a supporting cast of five — Arpino, Farah Alvin, Julian Diaz-Granados, La’Nette Wallace and Khaila Wilcoxon — who participate in both the singalongs and the comic set pieces, radiating the kind of desperate cheer that I’d imagine cruise ship performers employ to keep slightly sozzled audiences from nodding off. They appear to be talented performers, but this is not exactly a glittering showcase for anyone’s gifts.
The endlessly jaunty tone briefly recedes in the second act, when both Studdard and Aiken offer long — probably too long — personal reminiscences about their childhood Christmases (Studdard also speaks about missing a brother who died) and, more generally and more tritely, seasonal wishes for love, peace, friendship for all mankind and the meaning of Christmas. (“Jesus came to save the world or to save those who follow him,” Aiken says, making Jesus sound rather churlish, although I suppose he is on firm theological grounds by the standards of most Christian denominations.)
But this is only a brief foray into seasonal pieties. Most of the show consists of would-be rib-tickling silliness sandwiched in between all those musical holiday nuggets. When Aiken complains that the race-the-clock Christmas-song medley is just a little cheesy, Studdard counters, “It’s Christmas time. It’s supposed to be cheesy.”
Well, maybe, but there’s cheesy and there’s cheesy, and I’m afraid this show’s relentless barrage of mostly witless badinage and engorging seasonal cheer is enough to send even the most lactose-tolerant fleeing up the aisles.
“Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show” opened on Tues., Dec. 11, 2018 at the Imperial Theatre.
Creative: Written by Ken Arpino and Jesse Joyce; Music arranged by Ben Cohn and John Jackson; Directed by Jonathan Tessero; Musical Staging by Lisa Shriver; Scenic Design by Rob Bissinger; Costume Design by James Brown III; Lighting Design by Paul Miller; Sound Design by Bruce Landon Yauger; Projection Design by Jason Lee Courson.
Producers: Jeffrey Chrzczon, Side Effects Include and Josh Pultz/Amplified Entertainment.
Cast: Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Farah Alvin, Ken Arpino, Julian Diaz-Granados, La’Nette Wallace, Khaila Wilcoxon.