Countryside Community Theatre has plenty to be proud of with its current production of The King & I - the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical about a British schoolteacher who moves to Siam in 1862 to teach the king's many children - as Friday's performance hit all the right notes anyone might expect from this classic. There's enough familiarity in director David Turley's outing to remind audiences of the film or similarly staged productions, but also more-than-enough fresh takes on the characters to make this production Countryside's own. And underlying all this is a true cheeriness that extends from the cast to the audience. Despite the show's moments of anger and sadness, I was brimming with joy and full of smiles when I left the theatre.
The delight begins the moment the play starts, as Lonnie Behnke's Captain Orton delivers Anna (Rochelle Schrader) and her son Louis (Keegan Harry) to Siam. Standing on the dock, Harry's Louis has a bright, dimple-cheeked face and is decked out in a 19th-century ensemble - suit jacket, knickers, and cap - that's one of the production's many notable costumes. (Unfortunately, the program does not list its costume designer by name.) While he's a good lad, and Harry plays the part as such, Louis seems to have this delicious cheekiness simmering just under the surface - so much of one that I actually wanted the character to misbehave, because I thought Harry could pull it off in a way that would be fun to watch. He isn't given the chance, but Harry's performance is still quite impressive for his poise, stage confidence, pleasant singing voice, and ability to adjust his vocals to match the pitch and tone of Josh Schwirtz's Prince Chulalongkorn - the King of Siam's favored son - when the young men sing the reprieve of "A Puzzlement."
For his part, Schwirtz tones down the arrogance and condescension of his Chulalongkorn, shading his character with a child's curiosity. While he displays moments of commanding conceit, Schwirtz's best work is in the scenes in which Chulalongkorn discusses royal matters with the king; the way Schwirtz delivers his questions makes clear that his character is still forming his own opinions, rather than challenging his father's. I quite liked this take on the character, as Chulalongkorn's journey to the throne makes sense as an organic development of morals, and I also liked Jonathan Schrader's King of Siam.
Schrader doesn't attempt to channel Yul Brynner's iconic turn in the role, as is all-too-often tried on stage. Instead, his interpretation is less dynamic, but has more honest feeling to it. Schrader, whose vocals on songs are also to be applauded, doesn't deliver his lines with any awareness that they're funny, which renders the humor less than obvious, but more delightful for our discovery of the jokes. His King, too, has less of a "my way or the highway" attitude than Brynner's. Schrader's King seems to be a man who knows what he knows, and rules by it, because that's just the way it is - he's almost a sort of simpleton, because he hasn't been exposed to the ideas and facts Anna brings with her to his kingdom.
Rochelle Schrader, Jonathan's real-life wife, also sings beautifully. Upon hearing the opening notes of her first song, "Whistle a Happy Tune," I knew we were in for a night of great singing; even if she couldn't act, I was ready to enjoy her vocalizations. Fortunately, though, Rochelle Schrader can act (and deliver a consistent English accent), and shades her Anna with self-certainty, boldness, and poised politeness. Rochelle is particularly delightful during the scene in which the king tests Anna's promise to keep her head no higher than his at all times, and the performer chuffs with an angry, frustrated pout each time she must set herself in a lower position.
Emily Briggs, who plays Tuptim, possesses a gorgeous singing voice, and exudes both bubbling defiance and an earnest fearfulness at being caught in moonlight meetings with her lover Lun Tah, whom Anthony Curlott portrays with silky vocals that are pleasing on every note. And as Lady Thiang, the king's favored wife and Chulalongkorn's mother, Connie Green shows off adept comic delivery, accenting just the right words in her lines to maximize their humor.
Turley deserves particular accolades for the way he positions the 55-or-so royal children on stage (and makes it appear as if there are even more descendants in the king's family) without the image looking overcrowded, and designer Tom Goodall's sets are wonderful for their elaborate shades of gold, which, surprisingly, change to shades of silver when under different lighting. All told, Turley's take on Countryside's The King and I is thoroughly enjoyable - visually, vocally, and dramatically.
The King & I runs at North Scott High School's Fine Arts Auditorium (200 South First Street, Eldridge) through June 30, and tickets and information are available by calling (563)285-6228 or visiting CCTOnStage.org.