If you’re an inveterate vintage movie watcher or merely an insomniac, you’ve probably discovered on all-night television a 1943 classic comedy titled “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” starring Hollywood legends Don Ameche, Gene Tierney and Charles Coburn. Preposterous, sappy, giggle-filled story, larger-than-life characters, a paean to being true to yourself and the pursuit of dreams. There’s a sweet and unlikely love story, too. Perfect 3 a.m. fare.
The movie was inspired by Harry Segall’s earlier stage play, “Heaven Can Wait” and there have been multiple incarnations over almost 80 years - other films, a play or two - and this lasting power hasn’t escaped the keen eye and ear of veteran restaurateur and theater buff Jay Desiderio. He has good instincts about the shows he brings to his current dinner-theater venue, Bobby J’s Italian-American Grille. In addition to having his family’s homemade sauce in his blood, the lure of plays and players still courses through his veins from long-ago, halcyon days at SUNY Fredonia and a degree in theater arts.
So, “Heaven Can Wait,” revived and reborn, is at Desiderio’s in dinner-theater format. Desiderio is directing, touting that laughter is again on the menu. Two recent productions, although acclaimed by audiences, were intense, socially topical and troublesome. Not so, “Heaven Can Wait,” a complex tale of pugilist Joe Pendleton (Brett Klaczyk) and his premature death.
The celestial registrar was in err and Joe wasn’t due in heaven for 60 years. Mr. Jordan (Michael Breen) - kindly, sympathetic, not unlike Clarence from “It’s A Wonderful Life” - arranges Joe’s return to earth. Complications. Joe was cremated. There's no body to inhabit but one is found, a greedy Wall Street crook named Farnsworth just murdered by his plotting wife and her lover. Joe, first aghast, warms to his new role and riches, rights wrongs, while prepping for a championship fight. Hey, it could happen.
Confusion reigns. There are people invisible to others. Ghosts? Huh? There is bizarre behavior by Joe; his beleaguered fight manager, Max (Marc-Jon Filippone); more dastardly deeds by wife Julia (Lisa Hinca) and her conspirator, oily Tony (Robert Insana); and the involvement of the tall and willowy Bette Logan (Marie Costa), the daughter of an investor swindled and ruined by the recently dispatched Farnsworth. Joe is smitten. “Heaven Can Wait” plunges along, another body switched, Julia and Tony get their comeuppance, and Joe and Bette prepare to sort out strange wooing circumstances … as they look forward to the next 60 years. All in a day’s work by the wise Mr. Jordan.
The cast runs at full gallop through the wild tale. The burly Klaczyk is a likeable Joe. He's part-Fonz, part-Rocky and slow to fathom but street-smarts save the day; very complete work.
Veterans Breen, Hinca, Costa, Insana and Filippone are invaluable with the latter almost always manically over-the-top but loving it. Michael O’Hear is a fine Man Friday, Ames. Ian Rowlins is “7013,” an overeager angel intern. Bob Lohr plays well a police inspector. Area leading man Peter Palmisano is heard as a fight-card announcer. Able, all.
Desiderio wrote the book on the dinner-theater format. A half-dozen excellent and diverse entrees are available - featuring an extraordinary chicken marsala - with a fine assortment of appetizers, salads, soups and dessert. Jay and brother Bobby have been at this dinner-and-a-show business for decades and their professionalism shows.
“Heaven Can Wait,” an old-fashioned comedy, is in many ways a tasty treat.
3 stars (out of 4)
“Heaven Can Wait”
Comedy at Desiderio’s Dinner Theater, inside Bobby J’s Italian-American Grille (204 Como Park Blvd. Cheektowaga), through April 9. Performances are Thursdays and Saturdays (dinner at 6 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m.) and Sundays (dinner at 1 p.m., show at 2:30 p.m.). Cost is $46-$56 depending on entree. Reservations are required; call 395-3207.