NYTimes: Older, but No More Mature

November 11, 2010
Theater Review | ‘The Pee-wee Herman Show’
The sounds filling the Stephen SondheimTheater on 43rd Street are not the Broadway melodies you might expect to hear in a house recently renamed for the revered master of the American musical. They are, instead, the happy gurglings and raucous cheers of a thousand reborn inner children romping around a favorite playground.Pee-wee is back, boys and girls! The adorable man-child in the skinny suit and red bow tie, the helium-voiced idol of the snark generation, the post-camp poster boy, the human exclamation point: he’s been sprung from a time machine and has parked his playhouse on Broadway for a spell, bringing his fanciful menagerie of talking furniture and friendly sidekicks along for the ride.“The Pee-wee Herman Show,” which opened Thursday night for a limited run through Jan. 2, is nothing more and nothing less than a bubble bath of nostalgia for the many adoring fans of Pee-wee, the sweet ’n’ snickery alter ego of the comic actor Paul Reubens. Created and conceived by Mr. Reubens, and directed by Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”), the show resembles an extended episode of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the children’s television show created by Mr. Reubens that had its debut in 1986 and ran for five seasons on CBS, garnering Emmy awards like a kid hoarding gifts on a big birthday.Reconstituted more than two decades after its introduction, the original recipehas been left essentially unaltered. The playhouse itself has been supersized to fill a Broadway stage, but the familiar elements are all in place, from the chattering chair and window to the word of the day to the signature jig. Pee-wee may be playing it safe, but perhaps he’s playing it smart too. Nobody wants to bite into a Pop Tart or a Twinkie for a surge of Proustian recollection and have it taste like a granola bar, after all.Mr. Reubens and his co-authors, Bill Steinkellner and John Paragon, have added a few gadgets to the romper room, mostly drawn from the wacky world of infomercials. Among the puppet newcomers is a talking Sham Wow, and Pee-wee’s plaid suit gets Bedazzled at one point. There is a wisp of plot concerning the wiring of the playhouse, in preparation for Pee-wee’s first ventures into computerland.

But mostly this is a straight-up re-creation of the off-kilter world of the original series, which managed to succeed as both a sincere, pedagogical children’s show and a winking sendup of one at the same time. It was a remarkable magic trick that won the show an avid following both among real tykes and adults who warmed to Mr. Reubens’s kitschy, mildly subversive take on a vintage formula.

The key ingredient was — is — Pee-wee himself, a being forever arrested at the age of development when sarcasm has just been discovered — it’s yummier than chocolate! — and sex remains an obscure mystery, some unnecessary adult variation on cooties. (Which does not mean that the occasional naughty double entendre cannot be lobbed over the heads of the little ones.)

Mr. Reubens’s Silly Putty face is a little puttier, but it remains as stretchable as ever. His Popsicle-stick posture retains its comical rigidity; the flapping arms express exasperation and excitement with no loss of tone; the bopping Pee-wee dance is still beach-ball-buoyant. And of course Pee-wee’s restless imagination and childish mood swings are as extravagant as ever.

Gasps of delight and bursts of welcoming applause greet the three original cast members on hand to recreate their roles: John Moody as Mailman Mike, Mr. Paragon as Jambi the Genie and Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne, “the most beautiful woman in Puppetland.” Some of these players are perhaps showing the years a little more glaringly than Mr. Reubens himself. (Raspberried cheeks and white powder do wonders for erasing age, or perhaps the key is to find a strong signature look and stick to it.) But then the fans in the audience may reflect on the faces that greet them in the morning mirror, whether they caught the show during their actual tykehood or as young adults who cottoned to its mind-clearing appeal as a procrastination aid during the college years.

There are also newcomers to old roles, like Phil LaMarr as Cowboy Curtis, and Lance Roberts as the King of Cartoons, and newcomers to new roles, notably Jesse Garcia as Sergio the Handyman. (“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was notable for its racial inclusiveness, and Mr. Herman continues to fly a rainbow banner here.)

The Pee-wee-ignorant or the Pee-wee-averse are definitely not invited to the party. At times I felt a bit like a wallflower myself. I knew Pee-wee primarily from his debut movie, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Tim Burton’s breakthrough film, and was disappointed that the stage show featured little in the way of adventure, which is to say plot. The production is just a merry jumble of beloved bits designed to push the audience’s buttons with their familiarity. (Some date all the way back to the original “Pee-wee Herman Show,” staged in Los Angeles in 1981.) A string of unrelated diversions can be perfectly pleasing in a half-hour dose, but after 90 minutes I began to feel like a fidgety kid in need of an Adderall fix.

But I don’t want to sprinkle too much rain on the reunion parade in Puppetland occasioned by the return of the happy prince. The wandering focus of “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” will not be a distraction for fans of Mr. Reubens’s perky parody of a goofy kid. Nobody expects Pee-wee to prepare and polish a thesis during morning recess.


Created and conceived by Paul Reubens; written by Mr. Reubens and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by John Paragon; directed by Alex Timbers; music by Jay Cotton; sets by David Korins; costumes by Ann Closs-Farley; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by M. L. Dogg; puppets by Basil Twist; projections by Jake Pinholster; technical supervision by Larry Morley and Sam Ellis; design consultant, Jimmy Cuomo; cartoon and film consultant, Prudence Fenton; makeup, hair and wig design by Ve Neill and Cookie Jordan; associate producers, Jared Geller, David J. Foster, Anne Caruso and Kelly Bush. Presented by Scott Sanders Productions, Adam S. Gordon, Allan S. Gordon, Élan V. McAllister, Roy Miller, Carol Fineman, Scott Zeilinger Productions/Radio Mouse Entertainment and StylesFour Productions/Randy Donaldson/Tim Laczynski. At the Stephen Sondheim Theater, 124 West 43rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200; telecharge.com. Through Jan. 2. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

WITH: Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman), Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne), Phil LaMarr (Cowboy Curtis), Jesse Garcia (Sergio), Josh Meyers (Firefighter), John Moody (Mailman Mike), John Paragon (Jambi), Drew Powell (Bear) and Lance Roberts (King of Cartoons).

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