Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thoughts on Theatre: The Pee-Wee Herman Show

Playing now through January 2 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, New York. For tickets and additional information, visit Reviewed November 20, 2010 (afternoon show). Directed by Alex Timbers. Produced and conceived by Paul Reubens. Written by Paul Reubens and Bill Steinkellner with additional material by John Paragon.

Incorporating elements from both the original stage show and the TV series with a number of amusing new elements added, Pee-Wee's Broadway debut reunites the classic Playhouse gang, for the most part all portrayed by the original actors- Miss Yvonne [Lynne Marie Stewart], Jambi [John Paragon], Mailman Mike [John Moody], and puppet characters Chairry, Conky, Pterri, Randy, Globey, and other puppet scenery without names that end in "ey." Cap'n Carl is thankfully not replaced (as, sadly, no one can ever replace Phil Hartman for whatever reason period), and comedian Phil LaMarr (the voice of Hermes on Futurama, among other roles) does a great job filling Cowboy Curtis's boots in Lawrence Fishburne's stead- clearly, big boots to fill. And you know what they say about people with big boots... Adding to the comedy is a new character simply known as Bear [Drew Powell], who practically steals every scene he's in with his over-the-top pantomiming, frustrating Pee-Wee: "I hate charades! I hate mime! I hate new characters!"

The plot of the show, such as it is, is really more a means to an end of stringing along the various gags and sketches and is taken more or less directly from the original stage show: Pee-Wee is jealous of Pterri's ability to fly, and hopes that someday his wish of flying will come true, while also keeping a friendly ear out for a way to make Miss Yvonne's wish that Cowboy Curtis would like her would also come true...even if it means giving up his own. Far more amusing as far as plots are concerned is the subplot regarding a handyman named Sergio [Jesse Garcia] who is hooking up Pee-Wee's new computer ("new" being a relative term in this case), and the puppet gang's fear that Pee-Wee's new toy will replace them.

But really, what little plot there is takes a backseat to the jokes, of which there are plenty. Set up as a both a parody and a loving tribute in the style of a classic kiddie show of the Bozo-Kangaroo variety, Pee-Wee asks his audience to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and, of course, scream real loud whenever they hear the secret word- "fun"- before, among other routines, trying to cook onion rings, reading postcards from his pen pals, becoming engrossed in a children's book about the life of a dog, and introducing a classic Penny cartoon from the series (animated by a young Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame) and a public-domain educational film about lunchroom manners with comedic sound effects added (though the biggest laugh comes from one of the film's actual visuals). Most of the best humor, however, comes from the childlike Pee-Wee's interactions with the other characters, especially Sergio, with whom Pee-Wee proceeds to mangle Spanish, partake in the now-famous Tequila dance, and attempts to impress with long bit involving a balloon which, along with an overly long scream, is one of the two most drawn-out- and funniest - gags in the show. Add to this a good number of Pee-Wee's signature quips and dirty-jokes-that-really-aren't, horrible-yet-still-amusing puns, some topical jokes about subjects such as abstinence rings and gay marriage, visual delights including a dead-on recreation of the classic Playhouse set and a fun sequence set entirely in the dark in the classic cartoony blinking-eyes style, a funny running gag involving ad jingles and products (including a puppet Shamwow who unexpectedly becomes an ingredient in those onion rings), and a bunch of other surprises I don't want to give away and you've got a recipe for FUN.

Although the entire cast is superb, I have to give a shout-out to the puppeteer behind Chairry, who has a fun dance sequence with Pee-Wee, Powell, who gets lots of laughs as Bear without ever saying a word (well, maybe a few words), and, of course, Paul Reubens himself, whose not-quite-an-adult-but-not-quite-a-kid-either persona as Pee-Wee has always entertained and still does. Coming back into the role after a long absence, Reubens clearly is ready to leave his unfortunate past behavior behind him and come back to the character that made him famous. He may have aged, but Pee-Wee certainly hasn't- both physically and mentally. And given Pee-Wee's character, that isn't surprising.

Like many great actors who are known for playing a character (for example, Stephen Colbert), it's hard to tell where Paul Reubens ends and Pee-Wee Herman begins when he's performing as the character. After the show, Paul...or Pee-Wee...or is it both? came out and said some hellos to the receptive fans waiting outside the stage door, asking them where they came from to see the show and quickly responding to someone's shout that they loved him in Blow with the classic Pee-Wee "then why don't you marry it?" rejoinder. He explained that while he couldn't sign autographs, he was glad that everyone came out to see his show. It's clear from the way he came out after the show that Paul/Pee-Wee is a nice guy and really loves performing...and the reaction he gets for doing so. As Pee-Wee himself sings at the end of the show, he's the luckiest boy in the world and wants to share his luck with the audience. Truly, for both Paul Reubens and Pee-Wee Herman, that much is true...and both they- and the audience-are loving it. I know I did.

FINAL VERDICT: Highly recommended! A must-see for anyone who loves great comedy, Pee-Wee Herman, or just plain having FUN.

1 comment:

  1. I want to see it so bad! I'm really glad you had such an awesome time.