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A CurtainUp Review
The Pee-Wee Herman Show
By Elyse Sommer
Of course, if you're an '80s nostalgia buff and a Pee-Wee Herman devotee, The Pee-Wee Herman Show will be your own dream come true: A newly enhanced Broadway production of the once wildly popular Saturday morning TVshow for kids — but with lots of sly adult innuendos, and starring none other than the original Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens. To make up for the fact that no amount of make-up can quite hide the quarter century that's passed since Reuben's heyday, director Alex Timbers has assembled a crew of theatrical artisans to re-create the funtastic atmosphere that made the show such a hit. (Yes, that's the same young director who heads the Les Freres Corbusier company and is currently helming the cheeky Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, also on Broadway).
But what if Pee-Wee and his friends' quirky charms didn't make it into your memory book of cultural highlights? Will satisfying your curiosity about Pee-Wee's enduring place in the hearts and minds of his fans be worth the high cost of a Broadway ticket?
David Korin's eye-candy fun house set, Ann Close-Farley's garishly hilarious costumes (including one Liberace-like glitter suit for Pee-Wee) and Basil Twist and Company's wizardly puppetry are probably not going to see you through the 90 minutes without feeling you've spent your entertainment budget on a wrong-for-you show. And, while the yeah-yeah enthusiasm of the Pee-Wee-centric audience is real and loud enough, it may be too late for Pee-Wee "virgins" to join the I-Love-Pee-Wee crowd without reservations.
Actually the hysterical shrieks and thundering applause greeting each new magical feat by the puppets or entrance by another human Pee-Wee friend through the playhouse's padded red door are as much of a show as what's happening on stage. It works almost like a live version of a TV sitcom's laugh track, willing you to laugh even when the jokes fall flat.
To be sure, time hasn't stopped Pee-Wee from getting the grownups in the audience feeling as if they're back in elementary school. Even before the curtain rises to reveal the blindingly bright, three-dimensional, animated board game set, an American flag is rolled on stage and Pee-Wee gets the entire audience (Pee-Wee-ites and Pee-Wee newbies alike) to rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. With that little warm-up it's not too hard to get into the spirit of the Playhouse and watch those amazing puppets perform their magic and the live visitors do their shtick.
The production that just opened a limited run at the Stephen Sondheim Theater includes many of the best-loved live characters from the Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Some are played by actors who grew up watching the show on TV, some are on hand to reprise their original roles. In the latter category there's Lynn Marie Stewart as the still young in heart, big-haired Miss Yvonne who's smitten with Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr) the minute she gets a gander at him sporting purple and white chaps that would fit in perfectly at the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. LaMarr's okay but I couldn't help wishing I'd seen Lawrence Fishburne, last seen on stage as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
The additional material includes a nod to technology via a pinkalicious computer and Pee-Wee's getting on line and being "friended" on Facebook. Except for a sepia film reminiscent of the super conventional '50s style goody-two-shoes educational film on good manners and attitudes, there's nothing fresh enough to make this new incarnation rise above its basic nostalgia, silly-is-funny appeal. As I hinted earlier, there is a Peter Pan ending and, in deference to the adult audience, there are also jokes with bathroom and sexual allusions — from a corny perfume gag ("Iím wearing a light toilet water, but it was an accident") to innuendos about Reuben's own unfortunate off-stage problems.
This is a huge venue. Hopefully there'll be enough people to fill the seats throughout the scheduled run — people for whom this is a not to be missed chance to feel young and carefree again by renewing a fondly remembered old friendship with a beloved entertainer. While I wish The Pee-Wee Herman Show well, I hope some Genie in a box will come along to fulfill my wish to next book the theater for a show worthy of the talented composer-lyricist for whom this beautifully restored theater was recently named.