Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

January 17, 2010

Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman

Is there such a thing as too much publicity? That may be a question actor Paul Reubens is asking himself these days as he embarks on a comeback as his most well known character, Pee-Wee Herman, in a series of live performances here in Los Angeles over the next few weeks. His new stage show, entitled The Pee-Wee Herman Show, opened on January 7th after a period of rather tumultuous attention in the press. Originally slated for the Fall of 2009, the show was booked at The Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood. However, when response for tickets turned out to be greater than expected, the performances were canceled and rescheduled for early this year at the larger Club Nokia downtown. This caused significant consternation among a number of fans who had already purchased tickets for the earlier events in that they were given little to no priority for seating in the new venue. Worse yet, a number of out-of-town fans found themselves stuck with such things as plane tickets for dates they no longer needed. To make up for some of the ill-will over the switch, Reubens offered a post-show meet and greet for all the previous ticket holders to take place after each performance in the new run.

I was one of those prior ticket holders, and will admit that I wasn’t thrilled when exchanging my tickets to be told that I wasn’t permitted to trade up into a higher price category at the new location and pay the difference. I either took a refund and bought new seats in a subsequent general ticket sale, or I sat in the crappy rear side seats they put me in. To be honest, I didn’t care that much at the time. But after seeing the actual show on Saturday, I was decidedly nonplussed. It had nothing to do with the seats or any sense that I’d been inconvenienced. It had to do with the decidedly mediocre show whipped together for this comeback performance.

This new version of The Pee-Wee Herman Show will undoubtedly make the most hardcore fans happy in that it is nothing if not overly familiar. In fact, far too much so. The show relied heavily on the sets, characters, and tone of Reubens’ late-80s CBS Saturday morning show, Pee-Wee's Playhouse with its campy but genteel brand of comedy. There are still some references to the far more edgy and adult humor of the earlier stage performances that initially brought Pee-Wee Herman to national attention. But they are few and far between and when they do arise the gags are lifted, sometime almost word for word, from that prior show. This is Pee-Wee as you’ve seen him before, moderating a cast of puppet characters. There are live actors too, of course, and some of the original cast members have returned like Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne and John Paragon as Jambi. The old characters clearly outnumber newer ones although there was a man in a bear suit called "Bear" and a talking Sham-Wow. But the familiar gags have the upper hand on the new ones making them seem less comforting and just kind of sad. There was little new to say after two decades away aside from some references to the Internet. Otherwise it was pretty much a rather average episode of the old Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. But for some, that may be enough. For others maybe not. There was at least one vociferous booer at Saturday night’s show and a significant number of empty seats. With the number of ads I’ve seen for the shows, which run through February 7th, I imagine that sales haven’t been quite as strong as they may have hoped. In either event, it’s a walk down memory lane to be had if you so desire.


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