The Pee-wee Herman Show
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
November 6, 2010
Once upon a time, in a land where commercial television was free to be politically incorrect, there lived a man-child who wore a grey suit, a red bow tie, and white loafers.
His name was Pee-wee Herman, and he became, for people who grew up in that glorious time called the late-1980s, one of the most well-known characters in television history.
His alter ego, the actor/comedian Paul Reubens, became embroiled in a scandal or two. Reubens recovered, doing some movies and a TV guest spot every now and then. But Pee-wee was nowhere to be found.
One day, without much fanfare, Pee-wee reappeared. Inaugurating the newly renamed Stephen Sondheim Theatre. On Broadway.
The audience's excitement was palpable. Men and women, young and old, couldn't wait for the lights to dim. They reminisced about their favorite Pee-wee moments. They discussed the merchandise they bought in great quantities from the vendors. Some were even in their own Pee-wee costumes.
The lights finally went down. The audience tensely sucked in a breath. Then, he appeared, looking a few years older, a few pounds heavier, still in that grey suit and red bow tie. The audience went wild. We're talking the kind of cheers that one usually only hears when the Yankees win the World Series.
I'd be lying if I didn't cop to having chills when Reubens appeared on stage. I'd be lying even more if I said my eyes didn't widen, like a child in a store filled with the greatest toys ever, when the curtain rose on David Korins's extraordinary set, a more technical, 2010 adaptation of Gary Panter's original "Pee-wee's Playhouse" design, bathed in Jeff Croiter's bright, candy-colored lighting.
For the next 80 minutes, Reubens ran wild, like no time had passed. The cheers weren't just for him, either. The audience screamed their heads off for Miss Yvonne, Jambi the Genie, Chairry, Pterry, Conky, Globey and all the puppets from Puppetland.
This incarnation of The Pee-wee Herman Show, which had a very successful run at Club Nokia in Los Angeles earlier this year, is a reboot of the original stage show, the cult classic which played The Groundlings Theatre, and then the Roxy, in 1981, was broadcast on HBO and spawned two films and television's Pee-wee's Playhouse. Characters were cut and others were added, but the plot is essentially the same. Pee-wee wants to be able to fly, but can't decide between using the wish he's been granted from Jambi to achieve that goal or to bring together Miss Yvonne and Cowboy Curtis, who secretly like each other. To bring the piece into the 21st century, there's also a subplot of Pee-wee's Playhouse being wired for internet access, jokes about Bumpits, ShamWows, and Bedazzlers.
Perhaps the perfect choice to guide the madness and innuendo supplied by Reubens and co-writers Bill Steinkellner and John Paragon is Alex Timbers, head of Les Freres Corbusier and writer/director of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Timbers, who no doubt grew up with the show as I did, gets the humor, knows how to deal with it, and guides with an invisible hand. (Parents should be prepared to have some explaining to do when their kids don't get some of the more adult-themed jokes.)
Reubens is joined on stage by a number of his original colleagues, also now older, not that anyone cares. They are the enchanting Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne and the supremely goofy duo of John Moody as Mailman Mike and John Paragon as Jambi the Genie. New additions to the company are Jesse Garcia as Sergio the Handyman (originated on television by Jimmy Smits) and the oddly subdued Phil LaMarr as Cowboy Curtis (originated on television by Laurence Fishburne). Most notably missing is Kap'n Karl, played by the late, great Phil Hartman. I assume Reubens cut the character after realizing that Hartman couldn't be replaced.
Occasionally, I glanced around at the audience members, all of whom sat transfixed, with the biggest smiles on their faces. They could recite the lines as well as the actors could. They screamed when they heard the Secret Word. And nobody wanted to leave when it was over.
Broadway may be an unlikely address for Pee-wee Herman, but it's nice to see him again.