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Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Taped at New York's Stephen Sondheim Theater after its successful Broadway run, THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW ON BROADWAY (2011) proves that fans of Paul Reubens' iconic comedy character really can go home again.  Or at least back to the playhouse.

The audience is filled with people who weren't even born when the original "The Pee Wee Herman Show" premiered on HBO back in 1981, and some of them are barely old enough to have grown up with "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" on Saturday mornings from 1986 to 1991.  But they're an enthusiastic bunch and respond to Pee-Wee's kids' show antics as though they were sitting in Howdy Doody's Peanut Gallery.  Reubens' appearance alone onstage at the beginning of the show, leading them all in a solemn Pledge of Allegiance, elicits a wild ovation.

After the unveiling of the beautiful playhouse set, based mainly on the design of the TV show, Pee-Wee and his usual cast of playmates delve into their familiar antics almost as though thirty years hadn't passed.  The returning members of the cast, of course, are noticably older (Reubens' no-longer-quite-boyish appearance takes a little getting used to) but they bring their characters to life again just as before.  These include Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne, "the most beautiful woman in Puppet Land", John Moody as the mischievous Mailman Mike, and John Paragon as mystical, magical swami Jambi, a head who lives in a box.

Also returning is the King of Cartoons, with Lance Roberts replacing the late William Marshall and showing a "Penny" cartoon first aired on the TV show.  (Fans of the 1981 show will be happy to see a reprise of the legendary "Mr. Bungle" educational short.)  Besides a man in a bear suit whom Pee-Wee finds unbearably annoying, the best new character is an energetic Jesse Garcia as Latino handyman Sergio, who installs Pee-Wee's new computer to the consternation of his mechanical pals Clocky, Conky, and Magic Screen.  Lexy Fridell performs the voice of probably the most beloved inanimate playhouse character, Chairry, who actually joins Pee-Wee in a charming song-and-dance number.  Pterri, Randy, and most of the other familiar puppet characters return as well.

"MadTV" alumnus Phil LaMarr does a wonderful job taking over for Lawrence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, while also standing in for the late, great Phil Hartman in material originally written for his Kap'n Karl character.  The entire subplot concerning Kap'n Karl's secret love for Miss Yvonne is re-enacted along with most of the other material from the 1981 production, including Pee-Wee's desperate yearning to be able to fly.  LaMarr even seems to be channeling Hartman as he delivers certain lines ("It's the sea, Pee, the sea!").  Missing, and missed, are Edie McClurg as "Hermit Hattie" and Robert Rodriguez regular Tito Larriva as "Hammy."

Also missing, unfortunately, are the snappy pacing and pitch-perfect timing and delivery of the 1981 version, although some of this can be attributed to the fact that the cast are performing a sometimes patchwork blend of both it and the Saturday morning TV show and projecting it all for a much bigger audience.  Comparing the differences between the old and new interpretations of the material distracted from my enjoyment during my initial viewing and I even found myself becoming rather disappointed with it.  With subsequent viewings, however, this problem faded as I began to better appreciate the newer show as its own entity while the nostalgia factor started to kick in more and more. 

The DVD from Image Entertainment and HBO is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo.  No subtitles, although closed-captions are available.  The sole extra is a delightful commentary track featuring Reubens and most of the cast, which continues for almost four minutes after the show has ended (so keep it running after the closing credits). 

Though not as sharp and fresh as the 1981 show or as exhilaratingly off-kilter as the TV series, THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW ON BROADWAY should be a delight for Pee-Wee Herman fans old and new.  Lush, colorful, and vigorously performed to a joyfully receptive audience, it's a welcome return to a unique character and a magical time and place that you may have thought was lost forever.

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