Pee-Wee Herman Show On Broadway
There was an assumption that a distinction exists between television programming intended for young children and shows targeted for a more mature viewership. While this may be evident with the majority of shows historically there are some notable exceptions. In the sixties kids up to those in college would tune in and laugh hysterically at the antics of a slapstick comedian called ‘Soupy Sales’. On a superficial level his antics appeared to be silly skits for children but several were so adult in nature that federal agencies stepped in to levy fines and suspensions. This tradition subsided for while but was re-invented with great élan by a slimly built man named Paul Reubens. In 1980 he created a whimsical character called ‘Pee-Wee Herman’> this odd little man-child with his trademark skinny suite and red bow tie he burst on the scene forever altering the geist of popular culture. A few years later Reubens would bring this character to television in the form of ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’. Formatted in a similar fashion of the iconic fifties children’s series, ‘The Howdy Doody Show’ but with the tongue in cheek older appeal of Soupy Sales the series quickly became a cult classic. Many college students would become regular fans of the show albeit frequently assisted by some pharmacological or herbal enhancement. The amazing thing about this show is its longevity. The original audience has grown up and many off their children are now old enough to enjoy the antics of ‘Pee-Wee’ and his gang of goofy friends. Reubens may now be over sixty years of age but time has been good to him, even considering his somewhat unusual brush with the law awhile back. For many just revisiting the set made famous during the televised ‘Playhouse’ years will invoke a rush of pleasant memories. Some of that original cast has been replaced due to the natural selection of mortality, retirement or exceptional career success but this new DVD/Blu-ray released by Image Entertainment, ‘Pee-Wee Herman Show On Broadway’ will bring you back to a somewhat more simplistic time in your life. if you choose to enjoy this show with your kids than the circle of life will be complete and ‘Pee-Wee’ will have a whole new generation of fans in the making. There are a few missteps here but for the large part they are forgivable; you just have to surrender yourself to the playhouse mindset and let your mischievous inner child out for a couple of hours.
One of the reasons this show appears to be stuck in time is the return of Marty Callner, the director of the 1981 HBO special that started the entire franchise off. Rather than just setting up a camera or two in the front row of the Broadway run he embraces the magical ambience inherent in the production and judicially peppers the presentation with as few camera tricks to keep things interesting. Admittedly, I am somewhat torn with my acceptance of this stylistic choice. Part of me would have preferred the purist approach to get the there on opening night feel that I miss about seeing a Broadway performance. I can understand the director’s desire to honor the fundamentals of the show by playing with reality but on disc it would have been nice to provide the audience with a choice. Ultimately, this approach is a compromise of sorts between the shows roots on stage and the most popular incarnation on television. As fans of the TV show will recall extreme, bouncing close-ups of Pee-wee were common place and generally considered part of the fun. This duality is nicely reflected in the underlying story lines that are used as the foundation of the show. The audience cheers with delight over the appearance of the return of their favorite playmates to help Pee-Wee in his little adventures but there is also much enjoyment to be found in his attempts to bring this magical place into the new millennium with the purchase of a new computer; a move that is not universally accepted by the denizens of the playhouse.
The overall energy of this presentation is changed due to the absence of some of the brilliant performers that made the TV such a fertile ground for comedians. Most noticeable by their absence is the late Phil Hartman as Captain Carl and Laurence Fishburne whose role as Cowboy Curtis is taken over here by an alumnus of MAD TV, Phil LaMarr. Another substitution that is completely understandable but none the less lamentable John Moody as Mail Man Mike replacing the long time stress of ‘Law & Order: Prime’, S. Epatha Merkerson who had a recurring role as letter Carrier Reba. On the upside several of the fan’s favorites are reprise their roles including John Paragon as Jambi the genie and Lynne Marie Stewart returning right where she left off as Miss Yvonne. These characters were so integrated with the personas of the performers and their unique styles that it would have been a disservice to the show and the fans to even consider substitutions.
Reubens dons this iconic character with the ease of slipping into an old college sweatshirt on a lazy Saturday morning. This is s fitting metaphor since the general thrust of this show is a nostalgic return to the lighthearted shows than entertained us as kids while our parents tried to get that extra couple of hours sleeping in. At times they seem to try too hard to recapture the past but there is more than enough ne material to give an overall fresh spin to the performance. The sound stage afford by the Blu-ray release is robust but just for kicks I put the receiver in a mode that emulates a Broadway type theater just to give a touch of watching the show live on stage and it did provide a very enjoyable way of watching. This is flawed but overall well worth it.