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First Nighter: The Pee-wee Herman Show, Elf and the Ubiquitous Inner Child

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If you've been having trouble getting in touch with your inner child -- if, for instance, your texts aren't being answered -- why not live vicariously by going to Broadway and either The Pee-wee Herman Show or Elf or both? There, you'll witness a pair of alive-and-kicking inner tots.

Yes, television fans, Paul Reubens, looking not a day older (surgery? make-up? um, clean living? a combination of all?), has put his defunct tv series on stage. The playhouse living-room that used to come to your living-room free can now be visited at the newly-named Stephen Sondheim Theatre for anywhere between $67 and $122 a seat.

The enterprise is one for which reviews are probably pointless. The ready-made constituency consists of fans who know what they want to see when they enter and are given exactly that--the beloved innocent who's got a way with a naughty double entendre that adult-children get and children-children allow to zoom over their tyke heads.

Although David Korins is credited with the set, he has only tweaked the familiar surrounding, and writers Bill Steinkellner and Reubens, with additional material by John Paragon, have populated it with the old fave characters and a few new ones. For the intermissionless 90-minuter, they've inserted a minuscule storyline. Pee-wee longs to fly, and what suspense there is involves whether he will or won't. (Guess which eventuates.) Also included is a tie-in subplot concerning the developing love affair between Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) and Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr).

But, yay!, there in the flesh is Mailman Mike (John Moody), and there in the plush is adorable Chairy the Chair. (Which of puppeteers Oliver Dalzell, Haley Jenkins, Matt Leabo, Eric Novak, Adam Pagdon, Jessica Scott, Amanda Villalobos or Chris de Ville manipulate it or Conky the Robot or Globey the Globe, you'll have to ascertain elsewhere). In other words, there's everything a Pee-wee's Playhouse adulator would wish, including a secret word which when mentioned gets audience-participation cheers and applause.

And there, of course, is Pee-wee, a character whom Reubens knows from piquant top to pointed toe. He's the boy--derived from J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan -- who never grows up, who remains amazed and amused by all the wonderful things around him, who believes implicitly in humankind. And, like Peter Pan, flying. For all those reasons and more, Pee-wee represents the wishes of everyone in a troubled personal -- or public -- world, who wants Pee-wee's unshakable beliefs to be true but has begun, or come, to understand that they aren't.

Much of this fun zone -- where maturing as a concept doesn't have a place -- is simply sweet, much of it saccharine and plenty of it cloying. But there's no fighting it, which comes down to this: If you're a fan, this is your show; if not, not.

The boy-man in Elf, at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is 30-year-old Buddy (Sebastian Arcelus), whom librettists Tom (Annie, The Producers) Meehan and Bob (The Drowsy Chaperone) Martin have catapulted to the stage from screenwriter David Berenbaum's 2003 movie of the same name.

The long-lost son of Scrooge-like Manhattan publishing executive Walter Hobbs (Mark Jacoby), Buddy has been raised at the North Pole with Santa's elves. Even though he's grown to twice their size, he refuses to regard himself as human -- in other words, fears growing up emotionally.

The plot here is how Buddy learns about his surviving birth parent, travels to New York to win over the initially in-denial dad and more readily accepting step-mom Emily (Beth Leavel) and step-brother Michael (Matthew Gumley). Positive-thinking Buddy even gets to save Pop's job, despite the maneuvers of Walter's Scrooge-like boss, Mr. Greenway (Michael McCormick). Buddy is also crucial to the acceptance by a doubting Gotham and the rest of the world that Santa (George Wendt) exists -- the same point, movie-goers will remember, of the 1947 Natalie Wood-Maureen O'Hara-Edmund Gwenn Miracle on 34th Street and the 1963 Meredith Willson's adaptation tuner, Here's Love.

In the stampede to bring this later movie to the stage as a musical comedy, the ditties have been supplied by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, who serve material that's often pleasant as it whizzes by but never sounds like anything Irving (Holiday Inn, White Christmas) Berlin, Frank Loesser, the above-mentioned Willson or other truly creative songwriters haven't done before and better.

Broadway vets like set designer David Rockwell, costume designer Gregg Barnes, lighting designer Natasha Katz and, particularly, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw have done their damndest to polish the holiday ornament. The result is okay but not great, and Nicholaw's terpsichorean efforts are surprisingly second-rate. (Is it because he's working with singers not dancers?) Performers like Amy Spanger -- who, as love interest Jovie, helps Buddy become a man -- assist where they can.

The true break-out is lead player Arcelus, who's known to the local casting people but now has landed a role (did Will Ferrell turn it down?) that shows him to be a lovable blend of Ray Bolger and Danny Kaye. If Elf works at all -- and it sorta does, sorta -- it's because Arcelus excels as yet another male stage figure reluctant to make the transition from boy to man.