The secret word at The Pee-wee Herman Show, now at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theater, is “fun,” and there’s a lot of it to be had in this campy 90-minute bon-bon which caters to audience nostalgia.
However, those without much familiarity with Paul Reubens’ famous creation — from the original 1980 live stage show, the television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, or the big screen films Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Big-Top Pee-wee — are apt to find themselves bewildered by this live stage show and its peculiar brand of humor.
Still, even those theatergoers with a passing familiarity with Pee-wee are sure to enjoy the repetition of such catch-phrases as “I know you are, but what am I?” and the character’s signature dance moves.
While the show is thin on plot, two primary threads emerge. The first is Pee-wee’s attempts to move into the 21st Century by having handyman Sergio (a sexy Jesse Garcia) rewire his beloved Playhouse so he can connect to the Internet — much to the frustration of the Playhouse’s regular denizens, such as Chairy, Magic Screen, and Pterry the Pterodactyl, all of whom are brought to life by a crackerjack team of puppeteers, under the supervision of master puppetry artist Basil Twist.
The second thread involves the potential romance between Pee-wee’s good pal Cowboy Curtis (played with the right amount of “cool” by Phil LaMarr) and Miss Yvonne (a delightful Lynne Marie Stewart), as well as the sacrifice that Pee-wee may have to make in order to bring the couple together.
The action unfolds on David Korins’ brightly colored set, which pays homage to the look of the Playhouse on Pee-wee’s television program. Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes and Jeff Croiter’s lighting are also in keeping with the vibrant and somewhat surreal atmosphere that is such a crucial aspect of Pee-wee’s environment.
The script — written by Reubens and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by John Paragon — includes several off-color jokes and plenty of sexual innuendo to amuse the adults, but there’s nothing that’s too inappropriate for any kids who may also attend. Indeed, even the racier jokes pass by fairly quickly in director Alex Timbers’ whimsical and breezy production.
Ultimately, however, the show rises and falls upon its star, and Reubens delivers an outrageously over-the-top performance filled with outsized gestures, cartoonish facial expressions, and vocal mannerisms that are simultaneously annoying and endearing. For Pee-wee’s legion of fans, that is most likely enough for them to come see the show.