TV Critics Take Big Adventure with Pee-wee

PASADENA, Calif.—The word of the day was “fun” as a posse of press tour critics got out of Dodge for a little side trip down to Pee-wee land.
A live, theatrical run of The Pee-wee Herman Show is currently running at Club Nokia, part of the downtown LA Live entertainment complex right next to the Staples Center.
Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, was there in living grey and white, complete with little red bow tie and rouge. The original Miss Yvonne (Lynne-Marie Stewart) was there, too, as was Jambi (John Paragon, who helped pen this update of Reuben’s original Groundlings Pee-wee production). Lawrence Fishburne can no longer squeeze into his Cowboy Curtis duds, so former Mad-TV dude Phil LaMarr got roped into it. Reba, the original mail lady (played by future Law & Order regular S. Epatha Merkerson) was replaced with mailman Mike (John Moody).
That crazy Formica counter top-patterned set got a well deserved ovation from fans of the TV series (including many, like the fellow at left, who arrived in costume complete with Pee-wee doll). It was all there—the talking window, Chairy, Globey, Magic Screen, Conky the robot (now the Conky 3000), the talking fish, the singing daisies, the zig-zag vinyl door. Randy and Pterry dangled down from the rafters.
Well, okay, it wasn’t all there. Missing from the 90-minute show were the wonderful animated miniatures that added so much to the series. No ant farm, no food parties in the fridge. The dinosaur family must have moves out of the floorboards.
Cowntess the cow was also absent, as was that big-headed door-to-door salesman who used to make Pee-wee nuts.
The King of Cartoons (once played by late Blacula legend William Marshall but now by Lance Roberts) did show up and share a clip from the Uh Iwerks’ early ‘30s oddity “Balloonland.” One of those hilarious Cornet Films on hygiene and manners was also projected onto a large, descending screen.
I sat way up in the balcony next to Toronto Star scribe Rob Salem. From there is was very much like watching it all on a big flat screen TV, which worked.
This being LA there were stars in the audience. How I Met Your Mother‘s Neil Patrick Harris was at Saturday’s show and agreed with Salem later that more new material would have been welcome. A new Sham Wow puppet, for example, soaked up the laughs. There was also a new Captain Kangaroo-like Dancing Bear-lke character Pee-wee didn’t really warm up to because, well, he doesn’t really dig new characters.
Still, Pee-wee’s Playhouse was such a wonderfully subversive surprise when it somehow snuck onto CBS’s Saturday morning lineup in the mid-80s. To see it again, live, is to rediscover what it was that was so charming and simple about the series in the first place–that childhood was a pretty darn cool place to be, and that you can find your way back there if you just close your eyes and say, “Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho…”
The Pee-wee Herman Show is at Club Nokia until Feb. 7. For tickets call 1-800-745-3000 or go to Ticketmaster.

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