Friday, May 8, 2009

‘Heaven’ proves predictable but utterly charming

Published in The News Tribune and The Olympian
Pictured, top, Matt Garry as Tony, Hannah Baker as Bette, Scott Benson as Joe and Emily Tuomey as Julia. Photo by Toni Holm.
bottom, left to right: Corey Moore as Max, Dave Marsh as Lefty and Scott Benson as Joe;

Olympia Little Theatre’s production of “Heaven Can Wait” is funny and deeply satisfying despite being mawkish and predictable. Director Toni Murray acknowledges in a program note that the story is dated, old fashioned and highly improbable, but asks audiences to “set aside your cynicism and consider the idea that there are more Joe Pendletons than there are Jonathon Farnsworths -- even today.”

Pendleton (Scott Benson) is boxer who is snatched from a fiery death a moment too soon by an over-eager freshman angel, Messenger 7013 (Katy Shockman) and delivered to heaven before his time. To correct the messenger’s mistake, Pendleton, a not-too-bright palooka with a heart of gold, is given new life on earth in Farnsworth’s body. Farnsworth is an evil, greedy multi-millionaire whose wife, Julia (Emily Tuomey) and her lover, Tony (Matt Garry) have just attempted to murder by drugging and drowning him in the bathtub.

The principle actors in this show are outstanding: Benson, Shockman, Lynne Andreasen as Miss Jordan and Corey Moore as Joe’s manager, Max Levene.

Benson and Moore are both type cast in that their physical appearances fit the characters they play. Benson is muscular enough to play a boxer who brags about being “in the pink” and ruggedly handsome enough to be the hero in a romantic comedy. He plays Joe Pendleton with great energy and speaks in a manner that, while not being a precise accent, sounds like mugs from the Bronx that have shown up in countless movies. He truly becomes a likeable pugilist.

Stocky and unkempt with a funny hat and a lumbering walk, Moore is absolutely believable as a stumblebum fight manager about five cards shy of a full deck. He is by far the funniest character in the show. I’ve seen Moore in a number of OLT shows, most noticeably “The Foreigner,” “The Gazebo” and “Moonlight and Magnolias,” and this is by far the best performance I’ve seen from him.

Shockman comes across as flustered, perturbed and terribly confused as the bumbling angel who can’t seem to do anything right. As implausible as her character may be, I couldn’t help but root for her.

Andreasen deserves special accolades for a job well done as the lead angel. She is the assistant director on this production and was called upon to fill in for the original actor cast in the major role of Miss Jordan a week before opening night. The audience was notified before the play started that she was still on book. She hid it well. Her character logically carried a clipboard with notes she could refer to, so it was impossible to tell that she was reading lines, and she never missed one or slipped out of character.

Actors in some of the supporting roles came across as reciting lines without enough expression, and two of them -- Eric Mark as Inspector Williams and Dave Marsh as Lefty -- shouted some of their lines too loudly.

The set by scenic designer Kathy Gilliam is very well done. Her furnishing choices were excellent, especially the lion sculptures. Also outstanding were some of the costume choices, which were everyday clothes but chosen for variety and appropriateness of style, particularly those worn by the passengers being herded to heaven.

It should be noted that there have been many versions of this Harry Segall play on stage and in film. It has appeared under a variety of titles and Joe Pendleton has been a boxer, a football player, and even a comedian (played by Chris Rock). And in most versions the lead angel was Mr. Jordan, not Miss Jordan.

This version sticks to Segall’s original script and is wonderfully entertaining in spite of the sentimentality and a touching final scene that you see coming a mile away.

WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 15 p.m. Sunday through May 17
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
TICKETS: $10-$12, available at Yenney Music Co. on Harrison Ave (360-943-7500) or on-line at
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

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