Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pee? Oui!

We went to the first night of preview performances of Pee Wee's Playhouse on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theater. Mrs. W. is a BIG, longtime fan, owns the complete set of TV shows on VHS, has watched the original HBO special dozens of times (our personal dialect is richly seasoned with one liners taken therefrom), seen all the movies and have a respectable, not-quite-disturbing amount of merch on display or stuffed in crystallite tubs in the basement. There really was never a question of whether we'd go to this or not.

The production was a comfy mixture of elements from the HBO special with characters and bits from the TV mixed in as well as a certain amount of new material. There was a respectable amount of original actors returning to recreate their roles (Miss Yvonne! -- most lately seen as Charlie's dissolute mom in Every Day's Sunny in Philadelphia -- Jhombi, Mailman Mike)and the Playhouse set was likewise based on the original Groundling Theater set up but with the fuller realization that those visuals got on the network morning show.

From the moment Paul Reubens stepped on stage as Pee Wee it was clear that he was playing to the converted as the audience immediately broke out in frenzied applause. And in fact throughout the evening every time a familiar character made their first appearance the crowd went wild. Every familiar bit or verbal trope evoked tumultuous laughter. Lotta nostalgia involved and the production clearly was designed to speak to that. As the original stage show never played outside of L.A. it certainly was legitimate for an East Coast audience to be thrilled to actually be seeing this in the flesh. Still -- the L.A. production and the morning kids' show were genuinely innovative, cutting edge artistic statements, it was a little disappointing to see this work presented a comfy walk down memory lane, albeit a cool and definitely surreal memory lane.

Happily the new material that was worked into the show was strong and genuinely funny especially the sequence wherein Pee Wee gets online for the first time quickly becomes obsessed with acquiring as many Facebook Friends as possible.

What also kept the show lively and engaging was the minor slips and problems occurring as this was the first ever performance in front of a live audience at the Sondheim theater: at a point where Conky was supposed to hand Pee Wee the card with the Secret Word it, it'd slipped from the actor's hand and lay on the floor behind him, but Reubens noticed it on the floor, scooped it up and ad libbed without missing a beat. At another point the under skirt of Miss Yvonne's dress came loose and she deftly just tore it off and gaily tossed it away, again, without losing the rhythm of the show. Seeing the actors coping with these minor technical problems and thinking on their feet brought an added air of spontaneity to the production and a little edge of aesthetic danger that was one of my favorite parts of the show.

I did note that Reubens wasn't quite able to voice the Pee Wee character with all the high notes he was able to hit decades ago, but honestly, I think that once he's had a chance to live in the character a while that he'll adapt to his middle aged vocal cords and make appropriate adjustments with fine results.

Word is that after the month or so this production is slated to run on Broadway that Reubens starts production on a new Pee Wee film and on the basis of this show, I must say that my hopes are high.

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