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Swimming with sharks 

As the Inlander's arts and culture editor, I wear a lot of hats throughout the week. Sometimes I'm a food critic, sometimes I'm a book reviewer, more often than not, I'm the resident visual arts writer. One hat I don't get to don all that often is that of theater critic. Which is why until last weekend, I'd never been to the Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene.

This community theater, housed in a former neighborhood church since 1966, is community oriented in every sense of the word. Lake City Playhouse thrives on a healthy spirit of volunteerism. Longtime theater supporters take your tickets at the door, and the actors are the ones who usher you to your seat and sell you candy at intermission. The program offers the reminder that "opening a candy wrapper is distracting to the actors and the audience," and the theater space is cozily Lilliputian in a way that I haven't experienced since the Magic Lantern closed.

None of this is to say that Lake City is an amateur company, however. In recent years, the theater has gained a reputation for producing crowd-pleasing, professionally executed productions, including their current run of West Side Story.

This king of all Romeo and Juliet adaptations has its share of inherent challenges, and a good look at the postage stamp-sized stage indicated space would be one of them. Director Charles I. Gift solved the problem by paring down both the Jets and the Sharks so that they'd have enough room to work up a suitable physical menace. At first though, the actors seemed hesitant and uncertain — their movements were more dancerly than purposeful, as if afraid they might knock over Maria's apartment building or Doc's drugstore. But as the first fight scene unfolded, they took charge of their space and exhibited enough kinetic muscle to make the cast of Stomp proud.

The set deserves mention as well. It's not easy to draw a comfortable, coat-blanketed audience into the edgy urban world of life on the streets. But bleak and grungy isn't limited to just big cities, and all it takes is a section of chain-link fence and the blocky suggestion of tenement housing to effectively conjure up the claustrophobic hope of Tony and Maria's world.

Speaking of Maria, Darcy Wright is as convincing as she is appealing. It's a role that can be weighed down with too much "tragic heroine" energy, but Wright infuses her Maria with all the bubbly innocence of a girl thoroughly enjoying the powers of her growing beauty. Similarly, Kevin Partridge does a nice turn as Tony. He's almost too nice to be believable as a Jet, but his powerful stage presence makes up for it, especially in his musical numbers. In fact, both Wright and Partridge are remarkable vocalists.

Brook Bassett's choreography serves the varying skills of the actors well. George Stimak, as one of the Jets, is particularly good in a rubbery, semi-comic fashion, and the chicas of Maria's circle of girlfriends dance with convincing Latin sass.

Cami Hough is especially good as Anita, around whom the tragedy of West Side Story pivots. While the doomed love of Maria and Tony is supposed to be the real heartbreaker, it's marred by the sense that they've really only just met. Anita's love for Bernardo is lusty but mature — theirs is no crush, but a seasoned passion that's been around the block — and she not only loses him in the rumble, she's forced by circumstances to do the grown-up thing and try to make peace with the Jets for Maria's sake. Hough reminds us that it's not just about the kids.

West Side Story is not perfect; the pacing falters in places and the music sometimes drowns out the singers, but I can't fault it for having its heart in the right place. In its imperfections, the familiar story becomes fresh again. Tony and Maria are not star-crossed lovers, but just two nice kids in love; their friends aren't hoodlums and gangsters, but rather teenagers inheriting a turf mentality and not knowing any other outlet for their chaotic emotions. Best of all, Lake City Playhouse will take you away from the chilly gray of February in the Inland Northwest for a few hours by planting you in the sultry city heat of a midsummer night.

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