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WARM INTELLIGENCE WOVEN WITH LIFE LESSONS

At first glance, Heaven Can Wait is a sweet fantasy comedy about a lovable boxer who is snatched to heaven before his time and, because of a goof-up, compelled to return to Earth as somebody else.

Look further and you'll get a thought-provoking treatise on the purpose of life, obligations to oneself, to others and to the world, and, of course, true love. This comes through loud and clear thanks to excellent performances, especially by Todd Guenther as Mr. Jordan, the chief angel, and Juan Triana as the unfortunate boxer, Joe Pendleton, in the Stage West Community Playhouse version playing weekends through Sept. 27.

Pretty heavy stuff for a warm-hearted comedy, eh?

Don't worry; it's all completely enjoyable with good pacing; confident, well-prepared performers; a terrific production crew and direction by Terri Marwood that keeps it all moving along nicely. Special notice goes to light and sound designers Dan Brijbag and Kyle Marwood for excellent music choices to bridge the brief blackouts and bring home the point at show's end.

Heaven Can Wait starts as chief angel Mr. Jordan is loading an airplane to take recently deceased people to the hereafter. Joe is dragged in by the over-eager, nerdy Messenger 7013 (a delightful Chris Donnelly) who grabbed his first catch a tad too soon. Mr. Jordan orders Joe returned to Earth, but it's too late. Joe's overeager trainer, Max Levine (played hilariously by a big, gruff, cigar-chomping Michael Jeffery) has had him cremated. That means Mr. Jordan will have to find Joe another body to live in.

Joe, who was on the cusp of winning the world's middleweight boxing title, wants a body ready to continue his mission. But when he sees the distraught Bette Logan (Jennifer Vilardi) being mistreated by a heartless corporate titan, the never-seen Mr. Farnsworth, Joe agrees to go into Farnsworth's body to remedy the situation.

Farnsworth, it seems, had been drowned in the bathtub by his scheming wife, Julia (Cheryl Roberts), and her lover, Farnsworth's personal secretary Tony Abbot (Daniel Laufenburg). The cooing couple is shocked when Mr. Farnsworth's body, with Joe's spirit and integrity, emerges from the bathroom hale and hearty.

Joe is determined to turn Farnsworth's body into that of a boxer, challenge the reigning champ and follow his dream. To his surprise, he also falls in love with Bette, which only complicates things.

The opportunities for comical situations as Joe talks to an invisible Mr. Jordan, misunderstandings as Joe goes from body to body, and intrigue as the murderers are outed are amply built into writer Harry Segall's wonderful, tight script.

What makes this production thoroughly satisfying are the performances. Guenther, a longtime actor making his Stage West debut, is outstanding as the cool, rational, all-knowing, all-accepting Mr. Jordan, making every small gesture count. Whether it's a slight nod of his head, a raised eyebrow or a slight move of his hand, Guenther nails the moment. When the script calls for him to make an important point, his pauses and body language give the words the room they need to stick in the mind. His timing, demeanor and delivery create an unforgettable character.

Triana's bounding, electric energy and open, honest face and stance are the perfect complement for Mr. Jordan's cool. Joe is not some pug getting a second chance at life; he's a fine man who deserved the life he had, but had it taken away from him before his time. He's no gold-digging opportunist, but a man of character, and Triana more than does him justice.

Kudos, too, to Sheryl Depp, who turns the minor character Mrs. Ames, the housekeeper, into a genuine keeper, earning laughs as the consummate fight fan shadowboxing to a radio broadcast of a fight and planning what bets she'll place on her favorites. Director Marwood gives us some extra laughs by casting the slightly built young Nick Martinez as the plainclothesman battling the intimidating Jeffery's Max.

The elegant set by Marwood, Sig Stock, Dave Stenger and Greg Roberts, and set decoration by Roberts and Shirley Bishop create a backdrop befitting the home of multimillionaire Farnsworth. Judicious use of the side stages for smaller sets assure that stage manager Carol Ballard and crew have smooth, quick scene changes that keep the action going.

Heaven Can Wait isn't filled with booming belly laughs, but it does provide something better: warm, intelligent humor, intelligently done, all the way through.

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IF YOU GO

Now at Stage West

Heaven Can Wait, a comedy in three acts, weekends through Sept. 27 at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 adults, $9 students. The box office is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and an hour before each performance. Call (352) 683-5113.

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