Some might find it odd that a Broadway theatre recently renamed the Stephen Sondheim would be inaugurated with The Pee-wee Herman Show – a 2010 stage production based on a 1980s play and TV show that were throwbacks to 1950s kiddie shows. But all the interleaving epochs and postmodern ironies might appeal to the composer of Follies and Merrily We Roll Along.

What’s more, the character of Pee-wee, the silly-voiced, too-tight-suited alter ego of performer Paul Reubens, has always appealed to New York sophisticates. SoHo used to come to a dead halt on Saturday mornings in the mid-1980s, when the TV show was being broadcast. And the 1985 movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, a Bicycle Thief story that marked the feature debut of Tim Burton, was heralded by exacting critics.

But how does Pee-wee’s brand of slow-paced mock-innocence survive the transition to the 21st century, let alone to Broadway? Quite well, as it happens. I suspect that more of the children these days catch the drift behind Pee-wee’s dirty double entendres, but otherwise the set-up plays pretty much the same.

The Broadway production, written by Reubens and Bill Steinkellner, directed by Alex Timbers, and given visual life by the inspired set designer David Korins, relies not on plot but on atmosphere. We are back in the candy-hued den of Pee-wee and his gang: Chairry, Jambi, and the King of Cartoons.

Some of the performers have changed since the 1980s heyday: Cowboy Curtis, formerly Laurence Fishburne is now portrayed by Phil LaMarr. But Miss Yvonne – who flirts with Pee-wee even though he favours, ever-so subtly, so as not to alarm the children, the hunky male characters – remains the province of Lynne Marie Stewart. I revere Ms Stewart, but at this point she looks more like the Dowager Yvonne.

Pee-wee, too, is showing his age. Reubens’ gestures are no longer crisp. Yet what he has lost in vitality he makes up for in finesse.

No amount of mature dexterity can disguise the reality that it exuded greater hold as a half-hour of television than as 80 minutes on Broadway. (It’s hard to sustain interest with no real story.) But the charm is intact. ()

4 star rating

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