We gave it a B
It’s uncanny how swiftly and completely the feelings of goodwill for Pee-wee Herman come rushing back the moment Paul Reubens steps on stage at L.A. Live’s Club Nokia to begin his updated stage production, The Pee-wee Herman Show. Clad in Pee-wee’s trademark grey suit, red bow tie, and blindingly bright white sneakers, Reubens chirps, ”Good morning, boys and girls!” to the audience, and we happily chirp back ”Good morning, Pee-wee!” Then Pee-wee leads us all in the Pledge of Allegiance, introduces his show ”on behalf of myself and Bud Light,” and steps off stage for some brief psychedelic shadow puppetry that serves as a kind of title card. The curtains part, and there sits Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Chairry, Mr. Window, Magic Screen, Conky the beat-box robot, the jagged front door upholstered in ruby vinyl — it’s all there, perfectly re-created from Pee-wee’s seminal late-’80s children’s show. I could not stop smiling, right on through when we learned the day’s (or, really, evening’s) secret word was ”fun.” (AHHHHHHH!) Turns out, however, that the fun (AHHHH!) that’s had by screaming every time someone says ”fun” (AHH!) doesn’t really last all that long anymore.
It’s not that Reubens doesn’t deliver some serious fun (ah!). Pee-wee’s newest puppet buddy is named ”Sham Wow” (one guess what he’s made of). Pee-wee’s old friend Miss Yvonne (still played by Lynne Marie Stewart, who originated the role in the 1981 stage show that launched Pee-wee into the zeitgeist) gives an unabashed pitch for Bump-It, the ”hair volumizing insert,” replete with video from the actual Bump-It ads. Pee-wee calls on his handyman Sergio (Jesse Garcia) — the only new human character — to connect his ”computadora” to the Internet, where he begins spastically LOL-ing. And Pee-wee proudly shows-off his new abstinence ring, the closest Reubens ever comes to acknowledging the personal sexual foibles that have helped keep his beloved character practically MIA for 15 years.
Despite all these nods to modern times, though, Reubens sticks surprisingly close to his original 1981 show. Whole scenes are re-created pretty near verbatim, and the closest thing the show has to a plot remains Miss Yvonne’s not-so-secret obsession with a man — this time it’s Cowboy Curtis (MadTV‘s Phil LaMarr), instead of Captain Carl (played by the late Phil Hartman in the original show) — and how it conflicts with Pee-wee’s not-so-secret wish to be able to fly. Filled out by brief skits meant, as always, as both earnest homage and winking parody of 1950s children’s shows, this kind of self-repetition wouldn’t matter so much if the actors brought fresh energy and verve to them. But while Pee-wee vets Stewart and John Paragon (indispensable as the unflappable floating-head Jambi the genie) seem terrifically game, Reubens’ ageless face belies an unmistakably dimmed spark. There are times when Pee-wee simply gets lost amid all the bright kitsch and outsize puppetry, and it becomes increasingly clear that day-glo nostalgia is all he has left to offer. Pee-wee may end the show proclaiming himself ”the luckiest boy in the world,” but he never does match that initial rush of childlike joy we find in simply seeing the antic scamp back in his natural habitat. B
(Tickets: Ticketmaster or 800-745-3000)