Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 11, 2010
The Pee-wee Herman Show Production created and conceived by Paul Reubens. Written by Paul Reubens and Bill Steinkellner. Additional material by John Paragon. Music by Jay Cotton. Directed by Alex Timbers. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Ann Closs-Farley. Lighting designer by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by M.L. Dogg. Puppetry by Basil Twist. Projection design by Jake Pinholster. Make-up/hair/wig design by Ve Neill. Based on the original The Pee-wee Herman Show by Paul Reubens, Bill Steinkellner, Phil Hartman, John Paragon, Edie McClurg, John Moody, Lynne Marie Stewart, Ivan Flores, Brian Seff, Monica Ganas, Tito Larriva. The original “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was designed by Gary Panter. Make-up and hair designs based on the original “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Cast: Paul Reubens, Lynne Marie Stewart, Phil LaMarr, Lexy Fridell, Jesse Garcia, Josh Meyers, John Moody, John Paragon. Drew Powell, Lance Roberts, Caesar Samayoa, Oliver Dalzell, Haley Jenkins, Matt Leabo, Eric Novak, Adam Pagdon, Jessica Scott, Amanda Villalobos, Chris de Ville.
The master himself is certainly doing nothing wrong on the stage of the Stephen Sondheim, where this production has just opened under Alex Timbers’s direction. Paul Reubens, the man of a million childlike jokes (and the subject of more than a few of them), looks and moves exactly as he did in the 1980s, when his luminous creation first found its wide audience: with the confidence of an honest-to-goodness Pinocchio who finds never-ending joy in taking life as it comes. His enthusiasm is explosive and infectious, the meteor strike you want to avoid but can’t — if the passage of a few decades has in any way dimmed Reubens’s or Pee-wee’s fire, there’s no hint of it here.
That in itself is no small show-biz achievement, if one that’s not surprising considering the Pee-wee empire Reubens has already expanded into two movies, a children’s television series, and a unique position in popular culture. It’s not a stretch to say that Reubens has done more to build his own personal brand than most any one-trick comedian ever has. But even as you see him today, decked out in his perpetually fashion-averse stone-gray suit, red bowtie, and close-cropped hair, he remains nothing more than a dual-edged vehicle, both for the contemporary kids who watched him and their jaded parents who could see in him the youth they’d let slip away (and be perhaps only a little embarrassed by it).
But Pee-wee’s dark secret was that he didn’t start out being an icon. His debut incarnation, onstage with The Groundlings in the earliest 1980s and on a propulsive TV special later, was an adult-oriented affair all about not letting the likes of Howdy Doody and his cohorts off the hook. Yes, there was something legitimately appealing about him, but beneath it all was the terrifying truth that raising traditionally innocent youngsters was no longer possible in the way it had been a few decades earlier. Pee-wee wasn’t merely an avatar for our own bygone days of carefree pre-adolescent happiness, he was the last vestiges of it, experiencing their bloodiest death throes.
As we’re now even farther removed from the objects of parody, it’s much more difficult to replicate the original show’s impact. Reubens (who wrote the show with Bill Steinkellner, with additional material from John Paragon), Timbers, and their company try their best, but having to contend with the taming — if not quite dumbing down — of Pee-wee over the years doesn’t help. Trying to maintain the work’s initial, sharper tone while also embracing the much softer edges of the later incarnations means that the evening’s essential nature is forever warring against its applied one. So the show isn’t completely satisfying to either people who want the “real” Pee-wee and those who want the mainstream Pee-wee they remembered so fondly.
This show’s designers — David Korins (sets), Ann Closs-Farley (costumes), Jeff Croiter (lights), Basil Twist (puppets), and Jake Pinholster (projections) — deserve special kudos for recalling and reimagining the TV show’s maddeningly immersive world, a Technicolor wonderland as rife with infinite possibilities as with shocking naïveté. But the overly cutesy anthropomorphized furniture, windows, flowers, and friendly-looking robots, most of which were inherited from the TV series, get in the way of the ruder and raunchier places Herman wants to go. (Somehow, bits about abstinence rings don’t seem especially hilarious when they’re delivered in front of an adoring and adorable doe-eyed armchair.)
Perhaps the bigger problem is that, engaging as Reubens and his costars (most of whom were drawn from the original Groundlings version and also appeared on the TV series) are, sustaining the hilarity of a project like this for 90 minutes is not easy. There’s a reason that children’s TV shows of the kind Reubens spoofs were limited to 30 minutes (including commercials): Almost everything is filler. Pee-wee getting his house wired up for Internet access, while also trying to set up his not-so-secretly flirting friends Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) and Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr) and figuring out a way to soar through the skies like Superman, would barely fill a 23-minute episode on its own.
The mute, gesticulating bear (Drew Powell), ineffectual Mailman Mike (John Moody), handless local genie-in-the-box (John Paragon), and the benevolent King of Cartoons (Lance Roberts) dropping in at random intervals are gags that get old fast — and, at any rate, are often upstaged by the twisted takes on era-tweaking commercials, stop-motion animation, and classroom filmstrips. The performers remain expert at summoning the proper style, and it’s rare these days to see such a true “revival” cast so long after the fact. (Nothing against LaMarr, but it would have been a real kick if Laurence Fishburne could have been induced to return as Cowboy Curtis.) But with so many empty, obvious stretches where seriousness silliness is called for, their efforts can’t completely fill out the time they’ve been allotted.
The Pee-wee Herman Show, then, is just what you’re expecting, and just what you don’t need: more of the same, many times over. The dueling messages Pee-wee promotes — that you want to return to your childhood, but it’s undoubtedly best that you don’t — are as worth hearing today as they were 30 years ago. But for a show like this to shock and delight in a way comparable to the way it did then, it needs to justify its existence as something other than a rote resurrection of a worthy franchise. Reubens and Pee-wee can do almost anything, but they haven’t yet proven they can do that.