It's good to be the king. It's better to be Stefanie Powers.
Powers is the "I" in the touring production of "The King and I" that opens Tuesday at the Fisher Theatre; she's also the one who gets her name listed above the title in this production.
That's because she is someone you've heard of, very likely from the TV series "Hart to Hart" (1979-84) in which Powers and Robert Wagner played a jet-setting couple with a flair for solving crimes.
Powers gets around in real life, too, with homes in Kenya, England, and her native California. Right now, however, she's more interested in talking about how often she'll get to enjoy Polish food while she's in Detroit. She says she's looking forward to lots of homemade pierogi. "I hope we'll get care packages from the Polish community."
Powers, 62, was born Stefania Zofia Federkiewicz, and you should hear her rattle her name off.
You should hear her sing, too, she says.
"I started life as a dancer who could sing. I loved singing. Anybody who has ever sung loves singing. I never had a chance to do it in my career in film." That didn't stop her, though. She says that from time to time, she would perform in regional theater to give her pipes a workout: short runs of "Annie, Get Your Gun," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and "Oliver!"
In 1991 in London, she got the opportunity to perform in an original musical, a show called "Matador." It ran for only three months, but it launched Powers' recent career in stage musicals. She played Anna in "The King and I" in London, and it ran for nearly two years. Ronobir Lahiri, another American, played the king in the London production. He's playing the same role in the current tour.
One of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's two great American musicals with no American characters, "The King and I" is loosely based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, a British widow in the 1860s who spent five years in Siam (now Thailand) as a tutor to the king's children.
Leonowens wrote a book about her experiences, "The English Governess at the Court of Siam," that was published in 1870. It inspired Margaret Landon's 1943 novel, "Anna and the King of Siam," which inspired both the 1946 movie of the same name and Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 musical.
Although the historical Anna was in her 20s when she took the job in Bangkok, older actresses often play her in the musical. Gertrude Lawrence was 52 when she originated the role on Broadway. Sandy Duncan, 58, immediately preceded Powers in the tour. Powers began playing Anna last week, in Florida.
"I love her, this woman alone against adversity," Powers says of Anna. "Here she was, coming from a British colonial background. She very much had the comforts and privileges of what colonials were afforded. Once she was disenfranchised by the death of her husband, she really was lost.
"When this opportunity came up, getting a job was not what ladies did. Her alternative was to go back to Dickensian England."
No wonder Anna whistles to cover up her fear as the musical opens. The song she sings, "I Whistle a Happy Tune," is among several from the show that have become classics, the others being "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," "I Have Dreamed" and "Shall We Dance?"
Powers views "The King and I" not so much as a musical but as "drama set to music, because the story, the words Oscar Hammerstein wrote, was so significant." Besides portraying a clash of cultures, the script (Hammerstein wrote the script and the lyrics) looks at slavery, women's rights and international politics. "The content of the book as it segues into the lyrics are some of the most powerful storytelling," Powers says.
"It's a fascinating period. The king they're speaking of was the man responsible for opening Thailand to the world. He saved it from becoming a colony by becoming a trading partner" with other nations, Powers says.
Powers has obviously done some reading. She has also visited Thailand: The last time she was there, she was seated at dinner next to the great-grandson of the Kralahome (or prime minister) depicted in the musical.
Another trip to that part of the world may be in Powers' future. The American "King and I" tour is scheduled to last 10 more months. After that, "It is said we're in negotiations to go to Japan."
She sounds pleased.
(Oh. The other great R&H musical with no American characters would be "The Sound of Music.")
'The King and I'
8 p.m. Tue.-Fri.,
2 & 8 p.m. Sat.,
2 & 7:30 p.m. Sun.
Through Jan. 30
West Grand Boulevard at Second