November 24, 2010

"The Pee-Wee Herman Show" is Big Fun

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  So says the Bible.   

But that’s not the way we do things anymore.  We cling to our childish things. Fiercely.  Fans who grew up with the Harry Potter series haven’t abandoned their hero just because they’re now old enough to have kids of their own. The New York Times reports that 25% of the people who saw the latest film installment of the boy wizard’s saga this past weekend were between the ages of 18 and 34. 

And judging by the ovation that greets Paul Reubens when he walks onto the stage of the newly named Stephen Sondheim Theatre, his fans are still crazy about him too.  For most of the people clapping madly, stomping their feet and whistling with delight grew up with Reubens’ signature character Pee-Wee Herman and they were giddy about being there to see his new live version of The Pee-Wee Herman Show (click here to read a droll New York Magazine Q&A with Reubens). 

Producers are always wondering how to get people who aren’t collecting Social Security into the theater, well this show seems to have cracked the secret: put something on that people under 50 relate to.

In fact, the last time I heard an ovation like the one that Reubens got was when I went to see Spamalot and the Monty Python fans started laughing at skits before they’d even begun. The folks at the Sondheim knew their gags too. They cheered when the curtain rose to reveal Dave Korins’ faithful reproduction of the set from the old 1980s TV show and they welcomed each of the show’s iconic characters with screams of delight.

The loudest noise—after the din for Reubens—was reserved for the old series regulars Lynne Marie Stewart, who reprised her role as Pee-Wee’s neighbor Miss Yvonne, and John Paragon as the blue-faced genie-in-a-box Jambi.  The non-human characters like Chairry, a plush and affectionate armchair; Globey, a spinning globe; and Conky, the resident robot, are back too but wittily animated this time by the inventive puppeteer Basil Twist. 

The new stage show, directed by Alex Timbers (who, having helmed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and this, is emerging as Broadway’s go-to-guy for hip fare) doesn’t have much of a plot.  Pee-Wee, the eternal manchild, wants to fly and has to decide whether to use the magic wishes he’s been given to fulfill his dream or help-out his friends. In a nod to contemporary times, he also tries to buy and hook up a new computer.

It’s thin stuff. But sturdy enough for the fans, who come to revel in the old bits, including Pee-Wee’s herky-jerky jitterbug and the required screaming at each utterance of the secret word of the day.  Spoiler alert: the word is “fun.”

But the audience also chuckled heartily at the new double entendres including a couple of sly references to the 1991 arrest for indecent exposure inside a porno movie theater that almost ruined Reuben’s career.  “I’m glad he mentioned it,” said my friend Jessie, a longtime Pee-Wee fan who feels that Reubens was unfairly hounded and a victim of homophobia.

There’s always been a subversive not-just-for-the-kids quality to the Pee-Wee character that plays both to youngsters and hipsters. The perennially cool Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller were in the audience at the performance Jessie and I attended. 

Such broad appeal probably reflects Reubens’ training with the Groundlings, the legendary L.A.-based improv troupe where Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin, and the late Phil Hartman also cut their comedy teeth.  Hartman actually appeared on the TV show as did Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson.

Watching the 90-minute show at the Sondheim can feel like being at someone else’s school reunion. But newcomers aren’t entirely shut out.  A little girl in the row behind me who looked to be about seven shrieked with laughter. And even I smiled more than a few times.  I guess The Pee-Wee Herman Show brought out the child in me.

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