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'The King and I' at Marriott Theatre

It is a puzzlement, if you get to thinking about it. Although set at the royal court of Siam, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's The King and I was notably light on actors with Asian roots when it premiered on Broadway in 1951. The role of lovesick Burmese concubine Tuptim, for instance, was played by an Italian-American Brooklynite (and cousin of Vic Damone) named Doretta Morrow. And the Siamese king himself? Famously portrayed by Yul Brynner, who was born at the far-eastern end of the Soviet Union but came from European stock. Yet the based-on-fact musical about Anna Leonowens—a Victorian Englishwoman hired to educate the king's many wives and children in Western ways—is nothing if not a hymn to tolerance. Like South Pacific before it, The King and I posits forbidden love and cultural clashes as a way to put over the classic liberal notion that we're all the same under the skin. This, after all, is the show that gave us "Getting to Know You." So it's interesting to see it now, in a new Marriott Theatre revival whose commitment to diversity is such that not just Asian- but African-American cast members appear as part of the king's retinue. Under Nick Bowling's direction, the show is simultaneously a repudiation and a vindication of Rodgers and Hammerstein's vision: it draws our attention to the limitations of their Eisenhower-era politics (which come close, at times, to evoking the White Man's Burden) while demonstrating that the American theater has in certain ways absorbed their generous premise and taken it a few steps further. Of course, that's only if you get to thinking about it. With Heidi Kettenring's Anna and some bravura moments onstage, there's no reason you can't ignore the meta-implications and have what R & H tried so hard to give us: an edifying good time. The second-act "Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet"—a Siamese version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, devised by rebellious Tuptim and performed by the king's household—is handled here with enormous wit and grace.