Local audiences have seen married actors Jonathan and Rochelle Schrader appearing opposite one another numerous times over the years: in Opera @ Augustana's The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado; in the former Green Room Theatre's Into the Woods; and in Quad City Music Guild's Babes in Toyland.
But with Countryside Community Theatre's presentation of The King & I, running June 22 through 30 at Eldridge's North Scott High School, patrons will see the Schraders interact in a way that, on-stage at least, they never have before.
"This is the first time we've actually gotten to play semi-romantically together," says Jonathan, who enacts the titular, short-tempered King of Siam - a role made legendary by Yul Brynner - opposite his wife's stalwart schoolteacher Anna. "I've played her father several times, and I tried to kill her in Babes in Toyland, but ... ."
It's important, though, to stress the "semi" in that "semi-romantically," because as fans of Rodgers & Hammerstein's beloved musical know, the characters' tentative courtship is hardly a smooth one - a point discovered early by the Schraders' five-year-old son, and King & I castmate, Caleb.
"At one point in rehearsal," says Rochelle, "we [Jonathan and I] were at each other's throats ... ."
"It was the first time we did the second act," continues Jonathan, "and when I yelled at her, Caleb just stopped me and said, 'Why are you saying those things?' And I said, 'You have to remember that that wasn't daddy. That was the king, and the king was yelling at Anna. Daddy wasn't yelling at mom.'"
Sharing a laugh with her husband, Rochelle adds, "This is Caleb's first show, and so that was hard for him to understand."
It's easy, however, to understand these gifted, Rock Island-based singers/actors landing such sought-after roles, considering Rochelle's area experience includes playing Marian (the librarian) in Countryside's presentation of The Music Man, and Jonathan's includes the grass-skirt-and-coconut-bra-wearing Luther Billis in the organization's South Pacific. Still, as the Schraders explain it, their participation in The King & I was something of an accident.
"We auditioned in January," says Jonathan, "and we didn't get cast."
Laughing, Rochelle continues, "You know, sometimes directors have different people in mind for roles ... ."
"And I don't look like the Yul Brynner type at all, so ... ."
But then, in the spring, the show's original director backed out of the production due to a scheduling conflict, and prior to new director David Turley's recruitment, "the leads dropped out, too," says Jonathan. "We don't know why. But that's when the [Countryside] board of directors called us - with about a week-and-a-half, two weeks before rehearsals started - to see if we were available. And we were."
Yet what they weren't, despite their many musical credits, was truly familiar with the King & I material, which features such show-tune standards as "Getting to Know You," "Hello, Young Lovers," and "Shall We Dance?"
"I'd never seen it staged," says Rochelle. "I had seen the movie, but it wasn't something I knew extremely well. People know them by heart, but I had to learn the songs."
"And I saw the movie in high school," continues Jonathan, "and that was it. So when the board called us, we pulled it out and watched it - even though I don't usually do that. I like to form my own opinions about a character."
"But we watched it, like, once, and it got Caleb really excited about it," Rochelle says.
Laughing, Jonathan says, "'The easiest way to learn is to watch the movie!'"
"He said that to us when we were practicing our lines!" adds Rochelle. "And we were like, 'No-o-o ... we're not watching the movie again.' You want audiences to get the show they want to see, but you don't want to copy what someone else has already done. It really does, truly, have to come from you - you make your choices, and if directors don't like the choices you make, they'll let you know."
Of course, given Yul Brynner's signature performance as the King of Siam - a role he played in The King & I's 1951 Broadway debut (for which he won a Tony Award), the 1956 screen adaptation (for which he won an Academy Award), and multitudes of stage productions worldwide - a degree of copying almost has to come with the territory.
With her husband admitting that "it's very, very hard" to get Brynner's famed "et cetera et cetera" cadences out of his head, Rochelle says, "That's one of the dangers of doing a traditional show that everybody knows. Because you know people are gonna make comparisons, and say, 'Well, Yul Brynner actually played it like this ... .'"
Jonathan adds, though, that he's found his own character inspiration by seeking out the honesty in the role. "He's rooted in all this tradition," says the king's portrayer, "but he wants to be progressive, bringing what's good in Western culture to Siam. He has this real dichotomy to him, and there are some very dark moments ... . People think Rodgers & Hammerstein are just happy-go-lucky, but even though the characters are easily accessible, they're also really well-written, and their stories are so deep."
Rochelle, meanwhile, made her connection with Anna through the character's connection to her son Louis, a child not much older than Caleb Schrader.
"Anna wants to provide these things for her son. She's a widow, and she keeps coming back to this idea of wanting a house, and it feels like everything she does, she needs to do for him. Anna is uptight. She's proper and, you know, British," says Rochelle with a laugh. "But that need is a big part of her motivation in the songs, and in the dialogue."
Beyond finding ways to make familiar characters newly fresh, the Schraders admit that there are additional challenges inherent in the material, with Rochelle citing "the extra verbiage that's kind of like Gilbert & Sullivan, and difficult to memorize," and Jonathan laughing about the king's "long-winded tangents that are hard to learn when you're slightly ADD anyway ... ."
Yet they stress that they're both grateful and excited for their King & I opportunity ... and, during the rehearsal process, for the convenience of having a co-star who's also a housemate. "Although," says Jonathan, "if we incorporated all the ad-libbing we do at home when we work on lines, it would be a four-hour show."
"And we don't really have the space for the choreography," adds Rochelle with a laugh. "It would help the 'Shall We Dance?' number if we could practice at home, but we're using the whole stage for it at Countryside, so we'd need a big dance floor. Like a gym."
Countryside Community Theatre's The King & I runs at the North Scott High School Fine Arts Auditorium (200 South First Street, Eldridge) June 22 through 30, and information and tickets are available by calling (563)285-6228 or visiting CCTOnStage.org.