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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Stephen Sondheim


Does Stephen Sondheim get free tickets to the Broadway house newly named after him? And if so will he use them to see The Pee-wee Herman Show? Hard to gauge, based on what he told the Los Angeles Times about how the Pee-wee phenomenon parallels the jukebox musical. Said the maestro, “A popular character in this case, as opposed to a popular score, is presented to an audience that knows what it's going to get before going into the theater.”

“I know you are but what am I?” Pee-wee might well respond. But the composer is on to something. If you don’t know what you’re going to get before going into the Sondheim, best to keep right on going. Like a kids’ fort, the theater might as well hang “Keep Out” signs on its marquee, scaring off outsiders. Once inside, the Pee-wee faithful are issued the “secret word” that keeps them clapping and cheering for 90 minutes, but to weed out disbelievers – the ones who ask pesky questions about the personal peccadilloes of creator and alter ego Paul Reubens – you should be required to attain it from the Pee-wee grapevine and tell it to the ticket taker before the show starts to gain admission.

For this is no ordinary Broadway production. It’s the live version of CBS’ popular Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which ran from 1986 to 1991 on Saturday mornings, and is now playing with slightly more adult content and at much higher prices. Series regulars Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson have gone on to other playhouses, but the show is largely intact, as is its basic appeal. Twenty years older, a little lined and a bit thickened, the eternal child-man still rules the roost, with all his talking and squawking toy friends onstage in David Korins’ impeccable replica of the original set. Give it up, kids, for Magic Screen! Chairy! Conky the Robot! Pterry the baby pterodactyl! And all the rest of the gang, many of them returned to low-tech life by puppeteer Basil Twist, and some of them actual humans, like Jambi the Genie, still a disembodied head in a jeweled box, and still played by John Paragon (did they ever let him out?).

Two wisps of a plot – the toys’ fear of being replaced by computers as Pee-wee considers going online, and Pee-wee’s wish to fly – suggest a desire to leave the playhouse behind. But outside of its jokily delivered affirmation of marriage equality and occasional risqué asides, director Alex Timbers, of the madcap Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, is content to let our host indulge his inner and outer child in a very special episode of the program, somewhat repetitively it must be noted. The one retro-subversive touch, Pee-wee’s having the audience stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, comes at the very beginning, and the two short films shown as part of the show are one too many. Not that an audience that brings the love will be disappointed as their idol makes an up close and personal return. The clapping, the cheering – that’s a response that Sondheim would understand and appreciate.


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