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'The Pee-wee Herman Show' is back - on Broadway

The secret word, we're told early on, is "fun." If knowing that makes you want to yell and cheer - and use your outside voice - you are probably already primed to return to the otherworldly inside joke now called "The Pee-wee Herman Show."

For much of the '80s, the beanpole child/man called Pee-wee and his neon-colored playhouse owned a chunk of pop culture - both as the CBS kids' show that parents got and as the first full-length movie that Tim Burton got made.

With his teeny red bow tie, short long pants and winking innuendo, Pee-wee - that is, actor Paul Reubens - was a goofy-hip trendsetter and symbol of cheerful gender politics.

Derailed for almost two decades by a couple of embarrassing erotically charged arrests, Reubens (now 58) and Pee-wee (ageless), plus their gang of talking furniture and assorted old friends, are making their Broadway debut in a live regression to a silly side of the multigenerational zeitgeist.

And he looks, if you can imagine, marvelous - preternaturally smooth and shiny, with the Pee-wee squint and the Pee-wee sneer, and Pee-wee's gangly limbs overtaking his stage house with that Pee-wee lack of shame. And the production, directed by Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") and designed by David Korins, is a fabulous kitsch-fest of purples and reds, plush and shag, with dizzying angles and anthropomorphic creatures by puppeteer Basil Twist and many others.

The 90-minute weirdness begins with everyone standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. Chairry (a winsome easy chair with big eyes) wants to know the day's secret word, which means the audience at Saturday's preview roared approval after anyone said "fun."

Often, Mr. Window's magical mouth will warn "someone's coming!," and the three daisies will announce, "It's Mailman Mike" or "Cowboy Curtis" or "Miss Yvonne." Pee-wee, who wants to get a computer and to fly, sacrifices a wish from Jambi, the floating genie head.

If you're not already in the fan club, will you care? Beats me. For this appreciative but not adoring outsider, the show has an awful lot of bad-smell jokes and, after a while, a wearying delight in its own ingenuous ingenuity. But those are my secret words, and I don't dare say.

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