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The Return of Pee-wee Herman

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Friday, January 22, 2010, at 11:16AM
Pee-wee Herman at Club Nokia Jeff Vespa/WireImage

When the leader of Pee Wee's Playhouse walked into the simple spotlight at Club Nokia on Wednesday night, he began his comeback with a "good morning" and the Pledge of Allegiance. Cheers came from an audience that had waited 15 years for the return of the man in the ill-fitting grey suit.

Immediately I knew that they were all Pee-wee fans, but what am I?

The question is, how does a character that's ageless handle more than a decade of being shelved like an 80s archive?

Very well, apparently. The show was like finding long time friend and catching up with the funnier jokes you once told each other.

After a week of preview performances, Pee-wee had his official debut in front of a comedy star-studded crowd this Wednesday, January 20.

The updated Pee-wee is kinder than the bad-boy Groundlings Theater and ROXY run in 1981, and playfully snarkier than children's Playhouse version that ran on CBS from the mid to late 80s.

The plot of Pee-wee's desire to fly is left purposely thin to leave room for gags from characters made up from 11 actors, including original cast members John Paragon (Jambi), Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne), and John Moody (Mailman Mike). 20 puppets make up the rest of the cast, including the return of Pee Wee's talking chair Cherrie (Lori Alan).

It's the romance (ewww) between Miss Yvonne and Cowboy Curtis, played by Phil LaMaar, that prevents Pee-wee from getting his one wish: to fly like Pterri the pterodactyl.

With many members of the ensemble tightly-honed after years performing in front of live audiences more than a decade ago, the show didn't lose its frantic energy.

In contrast, while Reubens' Pee-wee is still the eccentric man-child, the combination of age and complete mastery of character. His comic timing was a fraction of a beat slower, magnifying each silly moment.

It also allows adult subtext to some bits, including a gag with an abstinence ring that neither excuses or defends his notorious 1991 arrest.

Rather, Reubens the creator depends on the audience’s pop culture memory bank for a shared laugh. The same for Herman’s dive into the internet, initial dislike for “new characters” in the show, and a few asides to contemporary cultures, like Burning Man.

Stage designer David Korins updates the colors of the playhouse while keeping the subversive theme park intact. The set still has the sharp angles of early-80s new wave, framing late-50s ephemeral and early-60s Googie architecture.

In the opening night audience, and later the VIP lounge, Pee-wee supporters included Ellen Page, Eric Idle, Drew Carey, Marisa Tomei, Judy Tenuta, and Allison Janney. David Hasselhoff, a former classmate of Reubens, offered a few "whoo-hoos" at the beginning of the show and David Arquette sported a red tie and grey plaid jacket.

And yes, the infamous dance to "The Champs" version of "Tequila" makes a prominent cameo.

The Pee-wee Herman Show / Directed by Alex Timbers / Runs through February 7.

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