Review: ‘The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway’ leans heavily on nostalgia

There are two different “You had to be there” barriers in place for maximum enjoyment of HBO’s “The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway” – which as at least one more barrier than I’d expected going in.

The special, which debuts Saturday night at 10, is a filmed presentation of just what the title suggests: the stage revival of Pee-wee Herman, the strange manchild character whom comedian Paul Reubens popularized in the 1980s.

The first barrier is one that frequently comes with TV versions of stage shows, which is that it’s very difficult to translate the immediacy of a live theatrical event onto film. Some directors manage to at least lower that barrier, if not break through it, so that at least some of the electricity that’s in the theater comes through the screen. But even though director Marty Callner has decades of experience directing stage-to-screen productions like this, and even though he directed the original “The Pee-wee Herman Show” special back in 1981, his work here feels very far removed – literally, at times, as some sequences seem shot from much too great a distance – and it’s always clear that the audience in the theater is having a much better time than we can even hope to have in our living rooms.

But I’ve still enjoyed plenty of these filmed versions that weren’t directed with significantly more flair than what Callner brings here. The bigger problem for me – and your mileage will almost certainly vary – is that watching “The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway” made me realize I was perhaps not as big a Pee-wee fan as I had thought I was.

Sure, I’ve seen “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” at least a dozen times, “Big Top Pee-wee” at least once, and enjoyed Reubens’ various cameos as Pee-wee throughout the mid-late ’80s. But I only watched a handful of episodes of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the Saturday morning kids’ show that was itself a kinder, gentler version of the ’81 “Pee-wee Herman Show” special. And the new special is pretty much a 30-years-later version of the old special, mixed in with some of the characters who were specifically introduced on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

So as the live audience was audibly giddy over the first appearances of Jambi the Genie (John Paragon), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) or Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr, replacing the otherwise-occupied Laurence Fishburne), I was mainly working to connect the synapses that would have reminded me of, say, Jambi’s catchphrase.

And without the overwhelming nostalgia for this particular venue for Pee-wee and these supporting characters, I found “The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway” a long (close to 90 minutes) slog, cute in spots, but mainly just strange – a voyage through the fantasy life of a character I prefer to see fending for himself in a closer approximation of the real world.

(I did briefly wonder if this was a Lennon/McCartney situation, wherein Reubens and the late Phil Hartman (who helped Reubens develop the character and co-wrote the early stage shows and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”) became greater than the sum of their parts, with consummate comedy craftsman Hartman compensating for Reubens’ fondness for the bizarre. Again, I didn’t watch much of “Playhouse” back in the day and I don’t know how the mechanics of that writing partnership worked, so I could be way off base. Mostly, I miss Phil Hartman.)

If many Saturday mornings of your childhood (or the childhood of someone you love) revolved around the words “Meka Leka Hi Meka Hiney Ho,” then seeing most of the old gang back together may be pleasure enough. But you really had to be there to enjoy it, I think.

Alan Sepinwall maybe reached at