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We Shall Dance!

It’s no puzzlement why this sumptuous reclamation of Broadway greatness, Marriott Theatre’s The King and I, is such a grand night for singing, an enchanted evening, and, like its song, “Something Wonderful.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s semi-historical domestic drama—the unlikely alliance between a Siamese monarch in the 1860s and a British governess/tutor—shows how history is about people at pivotal points. Change comes from unexpected places in improbable ways. When it does, sometimes the most honest response is just a question in a polka—“Shall We Dance?”

Like the dairyman Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, the unnamed King (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, at once imperious and vulnerable) copes with a future that’s come today. He must reckon with the widow Anna Leonowens (utterly charming Heidi Kettenring), a one-woman culture clash, as well as with colonial threats to his Indochinese kingdom. More personally, the polygamous ruler’s autocratic control over many wives and an equally fractious heir apparent (Matthew Uzarraga) now seems a useless throwback to a tyranny the times won’t tolerate.

Faced with British designs on Siam (though, of course, the French would be the true nemesis), the King must persuade emissary Sir Edward Ramsey (Rod Thomas) that he’s no “barbarian” by throwing a banquet and a ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (a delightful fusion of temple dancing and melodramatic excess). It buys time and, well, the rest is history.

Nick Bowling’s multi-textured, richly wrought revival surrounds the Bangkok palace with set designer Thomas Ryan’s intricate stone latticework and crowns it with signature arches from Buddhist temples. Within this exotic hothouse occurs a domestic transformation as seminal as foreign events: Accompanied by her son Louis (Michael Semanic), this stubborn, independent-minded Anna meets her equal in intractable defiance. So much so that Anna’s lovely “Getting to Know You,” sung by Anna and the King’s adorable offspring, fits the entire story.

The self-described “scientific” King must learn without seeming to, especially after persecuting the captive courtesan Tuptim (Megan Masako Haley). Her love for the low-born Lun Tha (Devin Ilaw)—elucidated in “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed”—expose the King’s capacity for cruelty. It’s all part of his struggle with a non-rhetorical question: Must “modernize” mean “Westernize”?

An unwitting feminist, Anna enforces her right to live in a home, not a harem. She will literally show the royal family Siam’s true place in the world. Happily, Mrs. Leonowens learns as much as she teaches in such inexhaustible delights as “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and the patter protest “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You” (also not a rhetorical question). Finally, as the ministerial Kralahome, Joseph Anthony Foronda stands for traditions soon to expire.

Making a terrific debut at Marriott Theatre, Bowling wisely lets these strongly drawn characters create themselves from universal conflicts. The beguiling ensemble, especially the sweet children, turns history into romance every chance they get. The songs get all the love that every note rewards. (One reservation: Ramsey should not be the only British visitor present to certify the King’s “civilized” credits.) Completing the grand illusions are Nancy Missimi’s storybook costumes, processional and ritualistic choreography by Tommy Rapley, and Ryan T. Nelson’s impeccable musical direction. The title is not enough: The King and I needs you.