New stage show looks poised for future life

Pee-Wee’s got possibilities.

But where the future of the production’s Jan. 12 preem at Club Nokia leads, if anywhere, remains an open question dependent on a number of factors — including how the show ultimately shapes up creatively and what Pee-Wee’s creator and alter-ego, Paul Reubens, decides to do next.

Flexibility seems to characterize the entire approach to the “Herman Show,” a 90-minute retooling of a 1981 Pee-Wee stage show that now features 11 actors, 20 puppets and music.

The latest production was originally announced for Hollywood’s Music Box Theater, but when it grew too ambitious for that smaller space, the show was delayed a couple of months and moved to the 1,400-seat Club Nokia — despite the logistical hurdle of rescheduling 10,000 ticketholders who had bought ducats in advance.

That initial B.O. response from the first announcement seems to rep a promising indicator of demand for Pee-Wee’s return, and lead producer Scott Sanders says the offering has attracted interest from New York theater owners, road presenters and Vegas venues, as well as from the DVD market.

And the L.A. incarnation of the “Herman Show,” capitalized at more than $2 million, is financially structured to move on if the decision is made to do so.

“I was loosely taking the template of what an out-of-town would look like,” says Sanders, who produced the 2005 Broadway tuner “The Color Purple” and is at work on a Houdini musical with Hugh Jackman reportedly attached. (That tuner has music by Danny Elfman, who penned the scores for Pee-Wee’s two 1980s film outings.)

Sanders, who met Reubens at a Pee-Wee stand-up show in the 1980s, produces “Herman” with associate producers Jared Geller and David J. Foster, whose Rialto credits include “Slava’s Snowshow” and “Kiki and Herb Alive on Broadway.”

But before any future life for the offering is locked down, those behind “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” are putting the final touches on the stage show itself.

The creative team is a mix of old school — Reubens writes the show with his original collaborators on the 1981 stage show, John Paragon and Bill Steinkellner — and new school, with Alex Timbers, a.d. of downtown Gotham troupe Les Freres Corbusier, on board to direct.

Set designer David Korins, familiar to legiters for his work both on and Off Broadway, collaborates with Gary Panter, who designed “Playhouse.” Original composer Jay Cotton returns to contribute new tunes.

L.A. reps something of a home base for the Pee-Wee character, which Reubens created in the late 1970s as a member of comedy troupe the Groundlings. After gaining popularity through stand-up appearances and gigs on David Letterman, a 1985 pic, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” preceded the CBS series “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” which was kid-friendly enough to air on Saturday morning but off-kilter and subversive enough to attract comedy fans significantly older.

Reubens describes the new show, centered on Pee-Wee’s wish to fly, as a combination of one of the episodes of “Playhouse” with the 1981 stage show that inspired it.

That original, puppet-free production, which co-starred Paragon and Phil Hartman, played for five months at the Roxy Theater in L.A. and aired on HBO in 1981, helping to launch Pee-Wee’s rep.

“From the very beginning I was going to rethink the original show, and I knew I would add all the puppets,” Reubens says. “I felt like people would come to the new show and say, ‘Where’s the talking chair?’ “

The talking chair’s there, as is a romance between characters Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne. “In a way, it’s like Pee-Wee’s greatest hits,” Sanders says. (Reubens adds he did not want to replace the late Hartman, so has made no effort to do so in the new version.)

It all sounds like the stuff of a kids’ show, but like all of Pee-Wee’s iterations, this one isn’t aimed solely at tykes.

“We’re not looking for this to be a Nickelodeon Live stage show,” says Sanders of the show, which is billed for ages 10 and up. “He has this remarkable ability to connect with a broad demographic range.”

Depending on how the production turns out — and whether Reubens is interested in continuing to perform in it — Gotham seems a likely next step, given the Broadway pedigree of its producers. On the other hand, Reubens originally imagined the show in Vegas, which also seems viable given Pee-Wee’s enduring profile in pop culture.

Regardless of where it turns up next, the new “Herman Show” will be the first new Pee-Wee property since Reubens shelved the character following his publicity-attracting arrest on suspicion of indecent exposure in 1991. (Over the years Pee-Wee was able to sustain fans, as well as acquire new ones, through repeat airings on Fox Family and Cartoon Network.)

Reubens says it was always his intention to return to Pee-Wee, and rumors of new films have been circulating for years.

But now that he’s back in the little gray suit, he’s finding today’s Pee-Wee is, perhaps inevitably, slightly more jaded than prior incarnations.

“Pee-Wee was way sweeter in the original,” Reubens says. “I think he’s a little snarkier in this version.”

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