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'Pee-wee' a pleasure on B'way

JOHN BRODER | 4/12/2011, 5:28 p.m.
When the old Henry Miller Theatre on West 43rd was renamed the Steven Sondheim this...
The Pee-Wee Herman Show

When the old Henry Miller Theatre on West 43rd was renamed the Steven Sondheim this fall, it might have been expected that the bookings would be of a more refined, capital "B" Broadway nature. Suffice it to say, it was a bit odd to be sitting down for the first production in the newly christened room holding a $10 sippy cup of something called Pee-wee Pop (which tasted sort of like liquefied Nerds candy) and wondering aloud, "I wonder if there will be cartoons."

Sipping sugary drinks with straws and contemplating a commemorative abstinence ring at the merchandising booth are par for the course for anyone attending "The Pee-wee Herman Show." More than 30 years since Paul Reubens' inaugural spin in the glen plaid suit, he's revived the once-ubiquitous titular character in a show that amalgamates elements of both the original theater production (shown endlessly on HBO in the early 1980s) and the Emmy-devouring "Pee-wee's Playhouse" television run.

It's a wickedly satisfying presentation. Following a deadpan Pledge of Allegiance, led by Pee-wee, the curtain is pulled aside and the playhouse, where everything (including a flying Sham-Wow) is a character, is revealed. It's a terrific set, perfectly realized and true to the image of the Saturday-morning staple that so many grew up with. The puppetry is outstanding; the costumes outlandish.

And the plot is just enough (literally, just enough) to pull the show through its 90-minute length. If anything, there are too many miniature subplots thrown in to make for a decipherable narrative. But the vast interim, which is sort of the point of the whole thing, is filled with the anticipated bad puns, sight gags and a seemingly stream-of-consciousness parade of characters, both live and manually operated. (On that: At one point, a giant dancing bear appears, to which Pee-Wee complains, "I hate new characters.")

Among the featured human players are original "Pee-wee" alumni John Paragon (Jambi, the genie's head in a box) and Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne, "the most beautiful woman in Puppetland"). The most Broadway-like thing about the production is "Mad TV" veteran Phil LaMarr as the Jheri-curled Cowboy Curtis (the role once played by Laurence Fishburne). Primarily a voice actor, LaMarr's personality comes across as outsized as his pink-and-purple outfit. If only he had sung more: Reubens and company have made room for so many characters that there's practically no music in the show. But it wasn't necessarily missed.

"The Pee-wee Herman Show" offers familiar childish barbs and audience-participation cues, with the occasional timely twist. (Example: "Why don't you marry it?" is followed by "You can't because you're both girls," to which Magic Screen offers a list of states where gay marriage is now legal.) In keeping with its original incarnation, it's punctuated by double entendres. The script actually magnifies the Pee-wee character's strange dichotomy--from chomping down candy and watching "Penny" cartoons (yes!) one moment to cracking jokes about a fireman's "huge hose" the next, he can unexpectedly swing from childlike to weirdly repressed and just a little slimy.

There is evidence to suggest Reubens recognizes the thick swirl of irony in playing this character at nearly 60; certainly, he relishes the chance to take another victory lap behind the wheel of his creation. But one also senses a deeper motivation, perhaps for at least a small measure of redemption. And while he's never explicitly acknowledged his connection to the gay community, the 2010 version of "The Pee-wee Herman Show" is remarkably homo-friendly (unless you gather something else from Sergio, the Latino American cable guy played by Jesse Garcia, doing the lambada across Pee-wee's living room, unprovoked).

But sure enough as it's easy to perceive a subtext, the show's real agenda is set in the show's opening moments, with one not-so-secret word: fun. And if fun is any measure of success, Pee-wee Herman is the luckiest boy in the whole world.