Pee-wee Herman: endearing man-child or nasal annoyance? The subversive, polarizing character made famous by actor Paul Reubens has returned nearly twenty years after the massively successful television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse for a month-long stage show at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, and we caught the premiere this past Tuesday night.
After the jump, our review, along with a slideshow of images.
Billed as The Pee-wee Herman Stage Show, the production amplifies the winking double-entendres and innuendos present in the original stage show while retaining the moral lessons of the later children’s program (which won 22 Emmys over its five year run). The grey plaid suit was immaculately pressed and Chairry freshly vacuumed, but sitting in a half-full theater on opening night raises the question of Pee-wee’s current appeal. And yet, despite the disappointing turnout, this show is visually entrancing, fiercely idiosyncratic, and generally hilarious. Pee-wee has returned as wholly entertaining and willfully weird as ever.
This is a fan’s paradise, repeatedly nodding at the roots of the Pee-wee character to the point where it almost seems like a factory production, rolling out signature lines and mannerisms to predictable applause. And yet when the bits are this gleefully wacky, complaining about familiarity is fruitless. The classic characters all make appearances, from Cowboy Curtis and his magic lasso to The King of Cartoons, who presents a decidedly non-child friendly animation about a pin-cushion man who chases after balloon children. This kind of dark humor was always subtly hidden in Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but now it freely and explicitly intermingles with the moral messages.
From the moment Pee-wee steps into the spotlight, delivers a strait-laced Pledge of Allegiance, and presents the show as “On behalf of myself and Bud Light,” the parade of irony becomes more and more pronounced. Some bits are stupidly entertaining product placement bits — such as the character Miss Yvonne delivering an out-and-out infomercial for the Bump-It or the repeated appearance of puppet Sham-Wow and the Ghost of Sham-Wow. Another scene involving Pee-wee’s decision to wear an abstinence ring leads to an extended round of sex jokes from puppets and sputtering robots, with Pee-wee barely able to stop himself from breaking out into laughter as he defends the effectiveness of the ring. All the while the material plays with audience expectations; one minute we’re looking at a nude firemen calendar, which induces a round of “one huge hose” jokes, the next we’re matching a film on manners.
These juxtapositions are jarring, achingly funny, and deceptively insidious, almost like Pee-wee is chiding us, testing just how our dirty minds will respond to jokes eventually revealed to be innocuous statements. When the genie Jambi receives new hands, he makes what seems to be a heavy-handed masturbation joke until he is later shown to be innocently shampooing his turban. It’s hard to reconcile the Pee-wee who does book reports, has pre-adolescent pen pals, and sustains on a diet of candy with the Pee-wee who makes jokes about cougars, Burning Man, and a relationship with a prisoner. Yet Reubens still moves, acts, and completely inhabits the mannerisms of Pee-wee as a small child to an uncanny degree. It’s amazing how strange and incredible and fully alive the character remains onstage.
Pee-wee repeatedly voices an intense dream of flying that’s clearly reminiscent of Peter Pan’s eternal childhood; he says with all sincerity that if he could fly it would make him “the luckiest boy in the world.” It’s unfortunate that Reubens’ legal troubles have indelibly shadowed the childhood innocence of such a character, but perhaps bringing Pee-wee back from retirement is just the right antidote to real-world woes. The word of the day was “fun,” and so long as the crowd is there to yell and scream along, The Pee-wee Herman Stage Show will continue delivering just that.