Jennifer Garner did it in 13 Going On 30. Robert Downey Jr. did it in Chances Are. Ellen Barkin did it in Switch. Warren Beatty did it in Heaven Can Wait, and before him Robert Montgomery in Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

What all these movie stars did was suddenly find themselves occupying someone else’s body in that ever popular genre—the body-switch flick.

Glendale native Tommy Kearney now returns to his home turf in Glendale Centre Theatre’s tiptop revival of Harry Segall’s 1930s body-switch gem Heaven Can Wait, adapted for the screen as both Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Heaven Can Wait, and if for no other reason than to see Kearney’s star-making performance as pugilist Joe Pendleton, this is one production comedy lovers won’t want to miss.

We first meet Joe up in heaven where the handsome prizefighter has been sent by mistake, an overeager celestial “escort” having jumped the gun and swept Joe up into the clouds just as his plane was about to crash. A quick check of the books reveals that Joe was in fact destined for another sixty years on earth, news which heavenly bigwig Mr. Jordan (Derrel Maury) could quickly rectify were it not for one pesky little fact—Joe’s manager Max Levene (Christopher Violette) has had Joe’s body cremated!

A whirlwind tour of prospective bodies (i.e. living souls whose days are numbered in the single digits) proves futile, none of them meeting Joe’s exacting criteria—a physically fit specimen who can swiftly be whipped into shape for an upcoming boxing match that Joe is bound and determined to win, if not as himself then as somebody else.

The latest stop on Mr. Jordan and Joe’s tour is the mansion of multimillionaire Jonathan Farnsworth, the soon-to-be murdered victim of an adulterous wife (Allison Boris as Julia) and her sly, slick paramour Tony (Tye Justis).

Joe is just about to add Farnsworth’s name to his long list of corporal rejects when who should pay the financier a visit but Bette Logan (Lily Nicksay), a pert, pretty blonde whose father is serving time for a white-collar crime he didn’t commit. (Three guesses as to who framed him.) One look at Bette convinces Joe that Farnsworth’s body will suit him just fine, and the next thing you know, Joe finds himself inside another man’s skin and giving Julia and Tony the shock of their lives, the nefarious twosome having just drowned a drugged Farnsworth in his bathtub, or so they thought.

Now all that Joe-as-Farnsworth has to do is:
a) win Bette’s love by righting the wrongs done by the real Farnsworth to her father;
b) reform Farnsworth’s business dealings in a way that would make any 21st Century progressive proud;
c) use his money and influence to set up a championship match between “Farnsworth” and the boxer Joe was getting ready to fight; and
d) win that match the way the real Joe would have.

Most writers would likely have had a second actor take over the lead role once the body switch gets made. Segall opts to have us see Joe as he sees himself, not as the outside world sees him in his new skin, a tad confusing at first, but hey, it worked with Montgomery and it worked with Beatty and it works equally well with Kearney on GCT’s boxing-ring-shaped arena stage under James Castle Stevens’ pitch-perfect direction.

Giving his movie star predecessors more than a run for their money, the charismatic young Kearney gives one of the year’s snappiest and best comedic performances, nailing everything from Joe’s Palooka speech patterns to his boxer’s athleticism to the kind of razor-sharp comic timing no acting class can teach.

Equally rave-worthy is Violette’s whirlwind turn as Max, a joyfully unrestrained dazzler of a performance that makes his scenes opposite Kearney the highlights of this all-around topnotch show.

Maury channels the ‘30s’ and ‘40s’ suavest character actors in an entertainingly wry performance as Mr. Jordan. Nicksay’s Bette is precisely the girl-next-door to win Joe’s heart, while Justis and Boris make for a deliciously villainous duo as the murderous Tony and Julia, whose dismay and confusion at a Joe-occupied Farnsworth make for some of the evening’s biggest laughs.

Standout cameo performances are given by Kate Landro as Farnsworth’s unflappable housekeeper Mrs. Ames, Tosca Minotto as overly excitable chambermaid Suzie, Irwin Moskowitz in a droll eleventh-hour appearance as boxer K.O. Murdock’s manager Lefty, and petite charmer Max Boris as Ming Toy, the most fashionably dressed pooch since Elle Woods’ Bruiser made his stage debut in Legally Blonde.

Todd Andrew Ball makes for a prim-and-proper Messenger 7013, ably assisted by Hisato Masuyama, though the doubling of Masuyama’s two characters had this reviewer initially mistaking the Act Two doctor for Act One’s 2nd Escort in disguise. Ryan Rowley (Escort, Workman, Plainclothesman), Hannah Wolfe (Ann), and T.Z. Zale (Williams) complete the terrific cast.

As always, Angela Wood and Glendale Costumes have done smashing work designing a bevy of just-right period outfits. All other design elements are uncredited, but equally fine, from the elegant living room that suddenly appears (and disappears) after a pair of swiftly executed scene changes backed by era-appropriate musical underscoring to the first-rate lighting design.

Paul Reid is stage manager and Nick Mizrahi assistant stage manager.

Heaven Can Wait kicks off what looks to be a splendid 2013 Glendale Centre Theatre season, including in-the-round stagings Crazy For You, South Pacific, and Hairspray. In the meantime, this rarely produced gem of a romantic comedy proves a surefire crowd-pleaser for audiences of all ages.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
January 10, 2012

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