A TV show with a reputation besmirched by scandal has now been resurrected as a Broadway spectacle, The Pee-Wee Herman Show, whose titular manboy and cohorts closely reprise the tube version. The kitschy set dazzles the senses—actors pop from viaducts atop the proscenium, bejeweled boxes open and shut, marionettes descend from the flys. A turquoise chair with female eyes coquettishly waves its armrests, expressing pleasure at being sat upon.
Clad in his signature gray suit and bow tie, Paul Reubens’s Pee-Wee exudes puerile sarcasm, and the reiteration of famous quips—”I know you are but what am I?”—doubles our nostalgia, recalling both real childhood memories and remembrances of Pee-Wee Herman vehicles past.
Like its progenitor, this extravaganza, directed by Alex Timbers, is organized around episodes involving the inhabitants of “Puppetland,” though in this case, a faint throughline develops. The multicultural utopians with whom Pee-Wee interacts include a Latino electrician (Jesse Garcia) and an African-American cowboy (Phil LaMarr) with a white female love interest (Lynne Marie Stewart), who’s styled in a bouffant redolent of 1950s repression. Amid more random occurrences, like a disastrous attempt to deep-fry onion rings, Pee-Wee sacrifices his own dream of flight to ensure the happiness of this interracial relationship.
Reubens’s history provides subtext, priming viewers for masturbation humor. Jambi, a genie heretofore known as a disembodied head, mail-orders a set of hands, confessing, “There’s something I’ve always wanted to do!” Intriguingly, the risqué humor nods at the sensibility of the franchise’s original adult-oriented cable-TV incarnation. The baklava you could make from the bewildering layers of unreality at play in The Pee-Wee Herman Show could resurrect Baudrillard.
If Pee-Wee makes him too dizzy, take Baudrillard across Times Square for another jolt, the musical Elf—a similarly repurposed product, based on the 2003 Will Ferrell film.
This seasonal narrative also concerns an immature man, Buddy the Elf (Sebastian Arcelus, who, in keeping with the rest of the show, bursts with brazen enthusiasm). To call Buddy an elf is a misnomer, though; his excessive height stems from his human heritage. As a baby, he’s left in Santa’s sleigh after his mother passes away, and the elves of “Christmastown” raise him with an unbearably sunny disposition. Immediately upon learning the name of his birth father, Buddy seeks him out in New York. But his dad and stepfolks are Santa skeptics, lacking in “Christmas spirit,” who mistake his joie de vivre for insanity. Combined with the romantic subplot, the story promotes Christianity, heterosexual marriage, and procreation by suggesting that these things ultimately define happiness. In this case, “Christmas spirit” begins to sound like “family values,” and Elf ignores and disrespects both the mosaic of beliefs and the healthy skepticism that define New York City.
After his dad rejects him, Buddy saves his father’s job at a publishing house by rushing into a meeting and successfully pitching his own story as a bestseller. Pop returns the favor by quitting. Buddy’s stepmother and brother convert to Santa-ism after witnessing St. Nick’s arrival, when his sleigh breaks down in Central Park. The only original turns Elf takes are in suggesting that Santa (a charming George Wendt) is an anti-materialist who can grant intimacy, and that his sled no longer unfairly employs reindeer, but runs, like a religion, on faith.