Today’s secret word is … delight — especially for fans of Paul Reubens’ iconic man-child, Pee-wee Herman, who has reemerged in an adaptation of the stage show that started it all almost 30 years ago. It’s a trip down memory lane for many and an introduction for a new generation to the multilevel style of humor the ersatz kiddie show provided in the CBS series that sprang from the original production of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” at the Groundlings Theater in 1981.
The audience for Wednesday’s official opening night reacted to every bit of nostalgia on display, cheering wildly as the curtain opened on the familiar playhouse that is home to Pee-wee’s collection of puppet friends, faithfully re-created by the design team. When Reubens strides onto the stage in his Pee-wee guise, it seems as if no time has passed at all since the character’s retreat from the limelight.
The basic story is the same: Pee-wee wishes he could fly like his friend Pterri the pterodactyl. When given the opportunity for his wish to be granted, though, he decides to use it for his friend, Miss Yvonne (original cast member Lynne Marie Stewart), instead. Along the way, the audience is treated to classic Pee-wee lines such as “I know you are, but what am I?” and “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?” and double-entendre humor.
One of the bits that flew over the heads of many preteens in the aud involved the genie, Jambi, a disembodied head in a box who receives a pair of hands in the mail. “There’s something I always wanted to do with these,” he says, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. When he next returns, he’s washing his hair.
The show is also peppered with lots of current pop-culture references, including Bumpits, Shamwows and Bedazzlers. One of the best is an extended gag about Pee-wee’s abstinence ring.
Reubens’ Pee-wee is little worse for wear in his return to the character. Very rarely does one glimpse the man within the exuberant boy. But he is onstage for most of the 90-minute show, and his energy never seems to wane.
Returning to roles they played in the original, as well as the “Playhouse” series, Stewart as Miss Yvonne and John Paragon as Jambi haven’t lost their luster either. Also reprising his role in the original is John Moody as Mailman Mike. Phil LaMarr steps into the boots of Cowboy Curtis, the role originated by Laurence Fishburne. LaMarr is charming as the would-be beau of Miss Yvonne. (In the original, Miss Yvonne’s paramour was Kap’n Karl, played by the late Phil Hartman.)
One of the new additions is the character of fix-it man Sergio (Jesse Garcia). Sergio’s dancing entrance into the playhouse and the banter between him and Pee-wee in fractured Spanish are highlights. Another is a brief, old film about manners that is hilarious.
Some bits don’t quite work as well, such as Pee-wee’s introduction to online social networks and instant messaging. But such moments are brief and don’t dampen the audience’s enthusiasm.
Technical aspects of the show are fine, especially the opening curtain that serves as projection screen for animated Pee-wees and fractured lines and shapes.