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Paradise Theatre’s ‘West Side Story’ a timely, solid effort

West Side Story continues through April 1.

Paradise Theatre’s productions are always much-anticipated. The little Gig Harbor production house has put forth some memorable shows in the last couple of years. "Next to Normal" was a critical smash hit! "Fiddler on the Roof" was critically praise-worthy, as well. This weekend Paradise opened "West Side Story." A show about immigrants and native-born Americans in a pitched battle over street turf shouldn’t look like it was ripped from today’s headlines. The fact that it does makes Paradise’s show all that much better. The performers and crew deserve the support of the theater-going community. "West Side Story" continues through April 1. Friday and Saturday evening shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday matinees start at 2 p.m. Paradise does not do Sunday matinees.

The love theme in "West Side Story" is timeless. While ostensibly Romeo and Juliet in the streets of New York, the tale has ancestry in Biblical times. Two kids fall in love. The friends and family of the lovebirds are against the whole thing. Save for the finger snapping and the "frabbajabba" (a WSS expression that sticks with the audience for days) it is a timeless tragedy. It is the show that helped make Natalie Wood a star and Richard Beymer a heartthrob.

The challenge for Director Jeff Richards was in how to cast the starring roles. Who, in Paradise’s stable of talent, could play Maria and Tony in a convincing manner? Enter Sydney Safford and Marshall Banks. Endowed with palpable chemistry on-stage and off these two carried the bulk of the plot on their attractive shoulders.

Ms. Safford is a senior in high school, or so she says. To be sure, she looks young enough to be telling the truth but she has the singing voice of a trained 20-year veteran. Easily the best vocalist in the cast she breaks hearts left and right with her songs of inescapable, inevitable love and passion. When she sings "One Hand, One Heart" with Mr. Banks, the set suddenly becomes a church. If there was a clergyman in the house he would have married them instantly. Ms. Safford sings with a perfect Puerto Rican accent. Her speaking accent comes from San Juan via Leningrad. That will improve over the run of the show.

Marshall Banks is in everything Paradise Theatre does. His earnest good-guy demeanor (dental professional in "Little Shop…" notwithstanding) always finds a sweet spot in the script. He has a singing voice that has improved over the past three years. It isn’t quite up to the task these songs ask of him. That said, his acting ability and matinee-idol looks more than make up for the over-taxed vocalization. There is something to be said for a theater full of women willing to take the bullet in his place because he is just that gorgeous.

A production that requires the cast to speak accented English is a challenge. More than up to that challenge is Brittany Hess in the role of Anita. Ms. Hess is a joy to watch work! She is this cast’s best dancer, in addition to its best elocutionist. She does an unqualified excellent job.

Kudos to Avery Horton on his first community theater effort. One would not have guessed him a stage newbie. As "Riff" he carries a heavy burden for a first-timer and does very well. Welcome to show business, Mr. Horton! You have a future on the boards.

Paradise Theatre does inventive things with set design on their small stage. They believably ran a train through town during "Fiddler…" Mr. Richards is responsible for this show’s set design, as well as it’s direction. The aforementioned church was his finest effort in "West Side Story," and the entire set was well-done.

Community theater fans in Pierce and Kitsap County should give this production a shot. The young people who fill out the cast are energetic and fiery. It is a good night at the theater and will help Paradise in their capital campaign, Act Local. For tickets go to the Paradise Theatre ticketing page, which is supported by Thunder Tix.