Everything changes, or so we're always told.
But not so fast.
If there's a compelling reason for "The Pee-wee Herman Show" to be on Broadway beyond delivering its gleeful dash of sunny but slightly subversive fun, it's to remind us that things can stay the same in our hearts and heads.
That's what nostalgia is all about.
Ditto the world inside Pee-wee's playhouse.
And Paul Reubens -- creator of the forever manchild famous from stage, TV and film -- totally gets that.
Hence, his Broadway show, drawn from an original 1981 production and co-written with Bill Steinkellner, unfolds like one of the TV episodes kids ate up along with their sugary breakfast cereal in the '80s.
If you liked him then, you'll like him now.
Pee-wee, the very model of a 1950s TV kid-show host (but in red bow tie and matching lips), entertains his friends -- Miss Yvonne, Cowboy Curtis, Mailman Mike and Jambi the genie, played respectively by Lynne Marie Stewart, Phil LaMarr, John Moody and John Paragon, each reprising their role.
Puppet master Basil Twist sees to it that inanimate pals Chairry, Pterri the pterodactyl, Clockey the USA wall-map/clock and Randy the Rascal are on hand to delight and to lend a little innuendo.
There's no story line, per se. Childlike Pee-wee chills, sings and dances, dreams of flying, reads pen pal letters from around the world (including prison, an allusion to Reubens' real-life scrape with the law) and shows a cartoon and a vintage educational film about good manners.
A slim subplot about computerizing the playhouse literally short-circuits and causes a blackout, as though the place physically rejects change and progress.
It's also gives a good spot to slip in some saltier humor.
In the dark, Conky, the talking robot, says, "That's not a flashlight."
At 90 minutes, the show feels a little long, but director Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") keeps things gliding along. The curtain rising on the Crayola-colored playhouse and the final image of Pee-wee defying gravity are both sheer delight.
Reubens, 58, still looks every bit a living cartoon and continues to cast a spell treading the fine line between creepy and charming, crazy and completely sane.
His entrance is met not so much with applause as with an explosion. It's a cry for Pee-wee – and everlasting childhood.
Upon entering the temple, we’re greeted with the alluring aroma of fresh plastic. Whatever’s behind that curtain smells like 1985, and it’s intoxicating: We’re here for a tent revival, and maybe a little timetravel. A fallen martyr of our youth is about to retake the stage, his glory restored, his strangled giggle un-gagged, his patent-leather hair undamaged. Sure, he’s a bit wider in the middle, and the cherry-red bow tie fits a little tighter now, but the point is, he’s here, against all odds, despite years of persecution. “I know you are,” speaketh Pee-wee Herman, paraphrasing Christ’s reply to Pilate, “but what am I?”
Amen! The Pee-wee Herman Show is a candy land parade of familiar faces, memes of Christmas Past, and play-along-at-home sketches: Jambi the Genie grants a wish! Pterri the Pterodactyl flies in for a visit! Conky the Robot spits out “the secret word”! Lick it, and you’ll uncover coat after coat of sweet meta-ness, with one great, governing joke at its chewy-center: Pee-wee Herman (comedian Paul Reubens) is a child in a grownup’s body--and now, that grownup is All Grown Up.
The children of the Reagan-era took Reubens’ act (the cackle, the catchphrases, the dance) at face value when they tuned in to watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse, that knowing yet ever-earnest gloss on fifties kidshows. Parents, meanwhile, could appreciate the subversion peeking beneath the undercarriage—they might have even seen Pee-wee’s bawdier LA stage show and HBO special. (Cynical types were all too delighted when he was busted for indecent exposure in a Sarasota adult-movie theater, an incident that flash-froze Reubens’s career in 1991 and changed how we hear the word “Chairy” forever.) But today, this comedian’s reunion with his compulsively nostalgic target demo produces an effect that’s nothing short of uncanny: Pee-wee was designed as a throwback, a cornball tribute to Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo; now he’s a throwback of a throwback, and the focus is on the absurdity, nay, the impossibility of currency itself. “Pee-wee, nobody’s being modern anymore,” argues the know-it-all iPad forerunner Magic Screen, who’s threatened by Pee-wee’s sudden interest in a home computer. “Modern is antiquated.” Pee-wee responds by hissing a contemptuous string of vacuous slang: “No worries. Same difference. It’s all good.” Reubens always was a covert educator, of a sort, and he’s still at it: A retired fad lecturing his kids on the hazards of faddishness and the fierce emptiness of Now. It’s kinda like Spuds MacKenzie running an AA chapter: A little bit postmodern, a lot-bit ridiculous, and plenty of cracked fun either way.
Best not to overthink it: You’re not going to Pee-wee for a wistful seminar in the disposability of popular culture. You’re here for the foil ball, the Penny cartoon, for Cowboy Curtis (Phil Lamarr, taking over for Laurence Fishburne) and Miss Yvonne (still played by Lynne Stewart). Well, they’re all here, and more besides. From the moment the light hits that Skittles-hued set, you know you’re either with Pee-wee or indifferent to him, a condition largely governed by age, attitude, and blood-sugar level. Is Pee-wee still “the luckiest boy in the world”? Or just a pop anomaly come round again, like some kandy korn comet, for another pass? Does it matter? Chillax. Pull up a Chairy. It’s all good.
The sounds filling the Stephen Sondheim Theater 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 recipe has 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.
Based on the 1981 stage comedy of the same name and the beloved children's TV program it inspired, the 90-minute show reintroduces Paul Reubens' adorably manic alter ego and his pals: Jambi the Genie, Mailman Mike, Cowboy Curtis, Miss Yvonne and others. The cast includes performers from the original production, by the Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings, and the CBS series.
The result is a nostalgia trip that will appeal most immediately to those who followed Pee-wee in his heyday — they were well represented at a recent preview, where audience members hooted in rhapsodic recognition each time a character was introduced. But to their credit, Reubens, collaborating writers Bill Steinkeller and John Paragon and director Alex Timbers recapture the gently subversive goofiness that made the brand work, and add contemporary flourishes.
The plot involves a computer — not the latest model, mind you — that sparks jealous feelings in Pee-wee's vintage toys and props, whimsically represented by master puppeteer Basil Twist and sweetly voiced by an endearing ensemble.
There are a few vaguely salty jokes, bound to fly safely over the heads of junior audience members.
It helps that the 58-year-old Reubens is still convincingly young at heart. Pee-wee may stretch an endearing premise beyond its limit, but it will likely make you smile along the way.
Fans of the art of Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) will have a nostalgic field-day at the Broadway incarnation of "The Pee-wee Herman Show." Non-initiates will simply scratch their heads, look at their watches, and stare in wonder as the seemingly rational adults surrounding them scream out with joy when anyone says the secret word of the day, which -- no surprise here -- is "fun." Pee-wee fans will have plenty of that at the newly monikered Stephen Sondheim Theater (formerly the Henry Miller); newcomers are unlikely to be converted, and might just as well stay home.
Nearly 30 years after Reubens debuted his alter ego on the L.A. stage in 1981, performer is approaching sixty but his creation seems to be timeless. Even so, Pee-wee can be hard to take. The youngster is something of a combination of Jerry Lewis, Eloise, and Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann, only with an aggressive edge and plenty of double entendres.
The new show, which preemed in LA earlier this year, is set in what seems to be a loving recreation of the set of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," the culty CBS Saturday morning skein that ran in the late 1980s. Reubens is accompanied by three members of his original TV cast (although Laurence Fishburne, was presumably too busy to recreate his role of Cowboy Curtis). Pee-wee faithful not only cheer the familiar characters, songs, and phrases; they offer loud and energetic entrance hands to the props.
Show has been slickly staged by director Alex Timbers, who after a long career in the downtown theater made a dynamic Broadway debut four weeks ago as author/director of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Actors, voices, and video are well integrated; the last include a very funny mockauthentic film on lunchroom manners, featuring a humongous slice of chocolate cake, and a stopmotion clay animation cartoon from Nick Park of "Wallace and Gromit" fame. However, there are moments -- like when, after almost an hour, Reubens spends two minutes blowing up and deflating a balloon -- when the ninety-minute show seems like it will never end.
The preteen fans of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" are now card-carrying thirty- and forty-somethings -- credit card-carrying, that is, and presumably happy to relive their youth with Pee-wee, Chairry the talking chair, Pterri the pterodactyl, and Miss Yvonne-the-most-beautiful-woman-in-Puppetland. Probably there are more than enough Pee-wee-ites to fill the Sondheim for this eight-week holiday booking; potential playgoers in doubt, though, are well-advised to follow their instincts.
Unlikely as it may sound, it's been 20 years since "Pee-wee's Playhouse" went off the air, which means that the Broadway transfer of "The Pee-wee Herman Show" is above all a nostalgia act aimed at thirtysomethings who spent their Saturday mornings watching Paul Reubens's genially ironic take on children's TV. Many such folk were present when I saw a press preview of the show last week, and they made their presence known, lustily cheering all their favorite bits. If you, too, were a fan, all you need to know is that Mr. Reubens, who is now 58, is still playing the part of a weirdly spritely man-child and that he has given us what is in essence a 90-minute-long stage version of his TV show, complete with talking furniture and peculiar playmates. Except for the superlative puppetry of Basil Twist, the main difference between Pee-wee then and now is that the script of "The Pee-wee Herman Show" is thickly larded with double entendres, jokes about gay marriage and other nudge-nudge-wink-wink nods to its now-grown fans.
Mr. Reubens's Broadway debut is, among other things, a comeback attempt, two widely publicized run-ins with the law having forced him into involuntary semiretirement. With $3 million in the box-office till to date, it looks like a success. I'm fine with that: Mr. Reubens has paid his debt to society, and this show, adroitly directed by Alex Timbers, the co-creator of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," is good for plenty of laughs. Appearances to the contrary, however, "The Pee-wee Herman Show" is not really a children's show, so don't bring the kids unless you're prepared to do a fair amount of heavy-duty explaining.