This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Each week in this town, brave performers mount tiny shows in tiny theaters hoping that someone will spot their talent. In 1980, Paul Reubens was one of those brave souls. He gathered some friends and used as much money as he could muster to stage something at the Roxy Theatre called The Pee-Wee Herman Show.
It was a hit, running for months and then it was taped by the young HBO network, which had only just began airing 24 hours a day. Soon Reubens was on TV and touring the country with his Pee-Wee stage show. Then came a Pee-Wee movie directed by Tim Burton, followed by a Pee-Wee TV show.
Thirty years later, The Pee-Wee Herman Show is back on an LA stage. It was supposed to play at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood last fall, but demand was such, they moved it to the bigger Club Nokia downtown.
Indeed when Pee-Wee Herman made his entrance on the Nokia Stage the other night, the crowd went wild. For many in the audience (especially those who grew up in the 1980’s) Pee-Wee Herman is not just a character, he’s an icon — one who occupies a lofty, almost mythical status that exists somewhere between George Washington and Captain Kangaroo.
This new incarnation of the Pee-Wee Herman Show (directed by Alex Timbers) is no doubt an attempt to extend this icon status into a new generation. Early on, it seems like this stage version might be the perfect way to “re-boot” the Pee-Wee franchise. When you first see Pee-Wee in his tight, gray suit, white make-up and red lips and bow-tie, all you can think is: “wow, Reubens can keep playing this part for another 30 years.” Like Mickey Mouse, Pee-Wee doesn’t seem to age — besides a slight resemblance to Silvio Berlusconi, he looks and sounds exactly the same.
Another thing that looks the same are the bad, 80’s, mid-Beverly Center design schemes. Yes, the bright colored, overstuffed, oddly-angled set of the original Pee-Wee’s Playhouse show has been lovingly recreated (complete with Conky the Robot and Chairry, the talking chair) but it doesn’t seem dated because its Melrose rococo, over-the-top-ness already was self-parody back in the 1980’s.
What’s also interesting to see is how much Pee-Wee’s antic, ADD personality — which made him seem odd back in the analog eighties — feels as if it anticipated today’s cell-phone-age interactions. Pee-Wee communicates in bursts of random ideas, catchphrases and non-sequiturs — his whole act is basically twittering, even though he developed it three decades before twitter.
As interesting as it is to watch it as a sort of social science study of evolving behavioral patterns in the Los Angeles Basin, after about 30 minutes (the length of one of his TV shows) the good vibes of nostalgia start to wear off. Reubens is a pro, his act as Pee-Wee is so professionally polished, it's always enjoyable, but the show itself starts to drag.
Much of this Pee-Wee Herman Show is an amalgamation of the original stage routine and the TV show. There are a few new bits, like a talking Sham Wow, and Pee-Wee dialing onto AOL, but the whole thing seems curated instead of re-created. What’s missing is the manic, picaresque absurdity of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
At the performance I attended, the word of the day was “fun.” And yes, with the original Jambi and Miss Yvonne in the house, it is fun. What’s disappointing is the sense that it could be so much more.
The Pee-Wee Herman Show runs at Club Nokia through February 7.
This James Taylor with Theatre Talk with KCRW.
Banner image: Ed Krieger; other images Ed Krieger and Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com