The Pee-wee Herman Show – Opening Night
Last night I attended the first preview performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show, the psuedo-revival of the 1981 stage show that ran at The Groundlings Theatre and The Roxy in Los Angeles. The show had a limited run earlier this year at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. I saw the closing night performance of the recent staging, so I was excited to see that Pee-wee would be coming to Broadway with his colorfully creative cast of characters. What follows is an account of my night. Please be advised that I may give some things away about the show, so if you are opposed to spoilers, you may not want to read further. Likewise, I’m relying heavily on my memory, so if I make inaccuracies, please comment below and I’ll make corrections.
When I arrived at the venue, one of the first things that struck me was that it was a relatively controlled crowd. When I saw the show in L.A., the crowd seemed enthusiastic about the show from the moment you stepped onto the venue’s property. Instead, this crowd seemed more like theater-goers than rabid Pee-wee fans. There were people dressed in Pee-wee t-shirts, but for the most part, everyone seemed relaxed. Also, I was appreciative that the temperature wasn’t as freezing as it was at Club Nokia. The show started a few minutes late, but it was forgivable.
The real excitement came as soon as the lights went down. The crowd went completely wild. Then the crowd went even crazier when a lone spotlight hit the curtain. Then the room went absolutely bananas when Pee-wee emerged from off-stage. We stood for what must have been a few minutes and Paul seemed genuinely appreciative of the reception. We didn’t allow him to audibly deliver his first few lines because we cheered, clapped, and some even chanted, “Pee-wee! Pee-wee!” The indifference I sensed among the crowd was quickly erased in the show’s first few minutes.
Without giving away every little detail, those who saw the show at Club Nokia will be glad to know that this version is actually much better. The plot has been fleshed out more and there is certainly much more adult humor. For example, the puppets consider staging a revolt when Pee-wee wants to hook up a computer in the playhouse and get new cyberbuddies. One of the puppets says, “But we’re your friends, Pee-wee!” and he replies, “Yeah, but you’re old! You’re not modern!” This leads to some kid-friendly tension with the puppets considering different ways to pay Pee-wee back for his impending neglect. There’s another really amazing new sequence that pays homage to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The power goes out in the playhouse and there are a few minutes where all you can see are the characters’ eyes. There’s a great deal of naughtiness that will go over the tops of of your kids’ heads (Pee-wee says, “I think I found my flashlight!” and Conky replies, “That-that-that’s not a flashlight, Pee-wee.”) There’s a number of really amazing visual surprises when the lights come back on, but I won’t ruin them for you!
All together, the show was pretty well done. There were a number of technical glitches (a prop got stuck under Chairry, a number of sound and light cues were off, Miss Yvonne had a wardrobe malfunction more tame than Janet Jackson’s), but the show kept the audience engaged and laughing. For those familiar with the 1981 production, which was aired as an HBO special and released on DVD a few years ago, you’ll be happy to know that a lot of the dialogue has been carried over to this show — even more than what was on stage at Club Nokia. As someone who’s seen that original special more times than I’d like to admit, there are still things I missed. Captain Carl’s absence was noticeable, especially with large portions of his dialogue given to Phil LaMarr, who fills in for Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis. I missed Brian Seff and Monica Ganas as Mr. and Mrs. Jelly Donut, the singing next door neighbors that perform the Sly Stone medley. I also missed the Balloon Land cartoon, which was replaced with two or three Penny cartoons (that were edited together to appear to be one long clip).
After the show, I spotted Alex Timbers, the director, sitting in the back row taking notes with two assistants. I asked him for an autograph and he politely and enthusiastically signed my Playbill. I proceeded to the merchandise stand and found myself to be disappointed. There wasn’t much there. There were glow-in-the-dark Silly Bands, magnets, several t-shirts (the coolest one had a picture of Pee-wee next to a giant mountain of tin foil and it said, “World’s Largest Foil Ball” or something like that), a baseball hat, and not too much else. Perhaps they’ll get more merchandise as the show goes on. The pricing for the items wasn’t inexpensive, but was fair by Broadway standards. I spent $20 on my magnet set and it came with 12 inside.
After I left the theater, my friends and I headed to the stage door. There were several hundred people crowded around. The security team instructed us that Paul would be coming soon, had his own Sharpie, and would be signing things. This ended up not being the case. He came out, and to his credit, stayed outside for several minutes and made small-talk with some people, but left without signing anything or posing for pictures. Ordinarily, I don’t think this would have been a problem, considering the number of people, but I do think it’s unfortunate that we were told he would be signing things and then he didn’t. Fans that choose to swing by the back door should measure their expectations of a meet-and-greet with Paul after the show.
After Paul left, I think it’s fair to say that several people were in the crowd were a little disappointed. However, as I was walking away, I spotted Lance Roberts, who plays the King of Cartoons. He posed for a picture and signed my Playbill. Then I saw Jesse Garcia, who plays Sergio, a new character, who did the same. I also saw Lexy Fridell, who replaced Lori Alan as the voice of all the female puppets, who signed my Playbill, as did Caesar Samayoa, an understudy for a handful of characters. They were all in great spirits and I appreciate them taking their time to not only meet with me, but other fans that were lingering around the theater.
As we were walking back to my car, my friend Allie spotted Lynne Stewart, who has played Miss Yvonne for nearly 30 years, coming out the main entrance. I recognized John Paragon, who has portrayed Jambi for the same length of time, and we spoke to them briefly, asked for autographs, and took pictures. It was very cool to meet two actors that have made such sizable contributions to the Pee-wee brand, not only in terms of acting, but also behind the scenes. John Paragon co-wrote and co-directed dozens of Playhouse episodes and Lynne Stewart co-wrote what I consider to be one of the series’ best episodes, “Rebarella.” Meeting them was an absolute pleasure and an excellent end to a night that was really FUN (which, by the way, was the secret word of the day!)