The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway: Film Review

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Performance film captures Paul Reubens's well-received return to his signature role.

Until Judd Apatow takes a shot at creating a cinematic universe as suited to Pee-Wee Herman's antics as Tim Burton's was in 1985, this filmed version of his Broadway show at least proves that the nearly 60 year-old Paul Reubens remains perfectly capable of embodying the eternal pre-teen who made him famous.

AUSTIN — An unlikely but welcome resurrection is documented in The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway, a straightforward concert film that will not be the character's last appearance onscreen. Premiering on cable the same week as its South By Southwest debut, the doc should tide old fans over until a planned Judd Apatow-produced feature, though any newcomers to the material are advised to start elsewhere.

Director Marty Callner (who also directed HBO's 1981 Pee-wee special) adds almost nothing to what audiences saw during last fall's New York run of the show: He shoots the star with a fisheye lens at one point and gooses a dance sequence with a radial blur at another, but even stunt scenes are presented as-is, with their quaint low-tech effects (like one in which lights go out and glow-in-the-dark cutouts substitute for the characters' eyes).

Appropriately, given the nature of the character, the doc offers no behind-the-scenes intro, maintaining the Pee-wee illusion just as Reubens did during his heyday in the role.

The story itself hits all the expected nostalgia buttons with favorite characters like Chairry the chair (voiced by Lexy Fridell) and Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) drawing big bursts of applause upon their first appearances.

Rather than offer one compelling plot, the script loosely assembles a few that might easily have been yanked from half-hour episodes of the original 1980s TV series. Only subplots involving Pee-wee's purchase of a new-fangled computer and his cheeky display of an "abstinence ring" really acknowledge the two decades that have passed since "Pee Wee's Playhouse" left airwaves.

The Broadway version worked seamlessly in person, but home viewers may wish the producers had shot this special as a conventional TV show instead of filming in the Stephen Sondheim Theater. Callner's close-ups catch Reubens in exaggerated expressions of man-child displeasure or curiosity that look artificial when not seen from orchestra or balcony seats, and reaction shots of happy audience members (though offering a communal, we're-all-fans warmth) don't further the hermetic illusion of the highly stylized Playhouse.

It’s telling that the filmmakers refuse to credit anyone as director of photography.

Still this compromise easily proves that the nearly 60-year-old Reubens remains perfectly capable of embodying the eternal pre-teen who made him famous.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Special Event (HBO)
Production Company: HBO
Cast: Paul Reubens, John Moody, Drew Powell, John Paragon, Jesse Garcia, Phil LaMarr, Lynne Marie Stewart, Lance Roberts, Josh Meyers, Lexy Fridell
Director: Marty Callner
Screenwriters: Paul Reubens, Bill Steinkellner
Producers: Marty Callner, Randall Gladstein
Executive producers: Paul Reubens, Bonnie Werth, Kelly Bush
Production designer: David Korins
Music: Jay Cotton
Costume designer: Ann Closs-Farley
Editor: Michael D. Schultz
No rating, 90 minutes

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