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When Pee-wee Herman steps onto the stage of Broadway’s newly rechristened Stephen Sondheim Theatre and barks, “Good morning, boys and girls” the roar of fans transported back to their childhood or college stoner days is deafening. It gets even louder when the curtain goes up on David Korins‘ deliriously tricked-out update of original designer Gary Panter’s iconic Playhouse set.
Three decades have done nothing to blunt the edges of Reubens’ inspired characterization of the ADHD poster boy, channeling both the joy and bratty capriciousness of childhood.
He greets each new toy, prank or wild scheme with honking laugh and flapping arms, but his exuberant mood darkens into sullenness whenever instant gratification is denied him. And woe unto anyone who challenges his place as the coolest (in his own mind), cleverest kid in the room. The deadly laser stare he shoots Chairry, his anthropomorphized, baby-blue armchair, for making one smart-aleck crack too many, says it all.
Alex Timbers (also represented on Broadway with the historical mockumusical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) strikes the right overstimulated note in his direction, darting from one bit of business to the next without worrying too much about the flimsy connective thread. Lag time is plugged with shameless filler like an extended balloon gag or an amusing 1950s Coronet Instructional Film on good manners, redubbed with incongruous sound effects.
In addition to Chairry, most of the human and puppet regulars from the cult 1980s CBS Saturday morning kids’ show Pee-wee’s Playhouse return. They include original cast members John Moody as Mailman Mike, John Paragon as Jambi the Genie and the sublime Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne, the “most beautiful woman in puppetland,” who compensates for the additional miles on the dial with even bigger hair.
As always, the faux-innocence is peppered with sexual innuendo, campy references, pop-cultural esoterica and sly nods to subjects outside the frame of children’s entertainment, such as gay marriage or government surveillance – “It makes us all safer, Pee-wee,” responds Mailman Mike when Pee-wee asks why his letters have been opened.
Wearing an abstinence ring to protect him from “love and all that creepy stuff,” Reubens also acknowledges his fall from grace – his 1991 arrest for indecent exposure in a Florida porn theater — with a mischievous wink and veiled masturbation allusions.
However, the secret word of the day is nostalgia, not rehabilitation, and the core audience’s built-in affection for Pee-wee and Co. provides a useful distraction from the writing’s lack of structure.
Test-driven earlier this year in a pre-Broadway run at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, the show was scripted by Reubens with Bill Steinkellner, a collaborator since Pee-wee’s earliest incarnations with L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings. Unlike the ingenious 1985 Tim Burton feature Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which built a robust road-trip plot out of the search for a stolen bicycle, this vehicle stretches the half-hour Playhouse formula to a thin 90 minutes.
While Pee-wee’s wish to fly is eventually realized via the low-tech puppet wizardry of Basil Twist, there’s minimal momentum in his quest. Likewise in Miss Yvonne angling to win the heart of Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr ably fills the purple cowhide chaps of Laurence Fishburne, who created that role).
The writers dangle the promise of mutiny when handyman Sergio (Jesse Garcia), a new character, wires the Playhouse for web access, threatening the resident gadgets with obsolescence. But the rebellion never happens. The “computedora,” a wheezing dial-up relic, serves mainly to teach Pee-wee that cyber-addiction is no substitute for life’s truer pleasures.
That cautionary lesson to appreciate the real magic of friendship and fun is as close as the show gets to a coherent theme. But the Pee-wee faithful are unlikely to quibble about narrative substance while they’re busy mainlining trippy color, subversive comedy, mad energy and beloved catchphrases.
Venue: Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 2)
Cast: Paul Reubens, Lynne Marie Stewart, Phil LaMarr, Lexy Fridell, Jesse Garcia, Josh Meyers, John Moody, John Paragon, Drew Powell, Lance Roberts, Caesar Samayoa
Writers: Paul Reubens and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by John Paragon
Director: Alex Timbers
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Ann Closs-Farley
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Music: Jay Cotton
Puppetry: Basil Twist
Projection designer: Jake Pinholster
Cartoon/film consultant: Prudence Fenton
Presented by Scott Sanders Prods., Adam S. Gordon, Allan S. Gordon, Elan V. McAllister, Roy Miller, Carol Fineman, Scott Zeilinger Prods./Radio Mouse Entertainment, StylesFour Prods./Randy Donaldson/Tim Laczynski
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