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Television review: 'Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway'

Paul Reubens is older now, but fans of the man-child's groundbreaking TV show will enjoy seeing him cavort with the old gang.

March 19, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Once upon a time, in a fair and distant land known as Los Angeles, comedian Paul Reubens debuted a stage show called "The Pee-wee Herman Show." It aired as an HBO special in 1981 and led to "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," which was director Tim Burton's breakout film, and soon Reubens was starring in "Pee-wee's Playhouse," a successful children's show that ran on CBS for five years. Then, in 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater and the show was shut down permanently.

But permanently is a very big word, and last fall, a new incarnation of "The Pee-wee Herman Show" appeared on Broadway to mostly favorably, if brief and nostalgia-soaked reviews. Now there is another HBO special, "The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway," which airs Saturday. A renewed interest by Burton has not been mentioned so the cycle may have to stop here; talking chairs, wild-eyed adult hosts and wise-acre asides are not quite as groundbreaking as they once were in children's television.

"The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway" is not, by the way, for children, despite the faithful (if enlarged) re-creation of the television's show famous set, with its bright colors, anthropomorphized accoutrement and wacky drop-in visitors. For every three kid-friendly hallmarks — the secret word, jokes about toilet water, Pee-wee's childish rejoinders ("I know you are but what am I?") — there's a decidedly adult double-entendre. Masturbation is referenced at least twice, abstinence rings are discussed, and the local firefighter shows off his calendar shot which requires, apparently, three pages to accommodate his "hose."

Reubens' ability to capture childhood's heady blend of wonder and narcissism while throwing a few knowing winks at the adult audience was one of the chief reasons Pee-wee and his show were so successful. He threw tantrums, he teased his friends, he said the sorts of things real kids said in a voice that both embraced and mocked youth. Before there was SpongeBob, or, for that matter, South Park, there was Pee-wee, sweet and bratty, innocent and knowing.

Despite growing older, Reubens remains slender and graceful. But while his voice is as elastic as it ever was, his face has undeniably aged which adds to the occasional creepiness factor of the show. Pee-wee was always a boy-man, but Reubens is pushing 60; when he is flying through the air singing "I'm the luckiest boy in the world" the words "Sunset Boulevard" do come unfortunately to mind.

Still, fans of Pee-wee will no doubt delight in a return to those strange and halcyon days before the Wiggles and Blues Clues took over the world, when Barney was still Fred Flintstone's sidekick and not a purple dinosaur and Pee-wee's multi-generational appeal was subversive and unique. Just make sure you send the kids to bed, unless you really want to explain why Jambi is so excited to finally have hands.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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