Friday, March 04, 2005

Role of Anna in the ‘King’ is a perfect fit for Powers

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Stefanie Powers covers as much territory as CNN.

The actress, due in Wilmington tonight to begin a 10-day run in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "The King and I," is more than bi-coastal. She’s intercontinental, with homes in California, England, and East Africa. Consider that "The King and I" is set in Asia, and following Stefanie Powers’ itinerary is like taking a world tour.

East Africa is the intriguing place. If you think of Powers as half of the married detective team on television’s "Hart to Hart," you think of glamour and champagne with some action. You don’t picture an exotic outpost where Powers does a lot of important work in animal preservation and habitat conservation.

Stefanie Powers wears many hats. Her stage, film, and TV performances account for her most visible occupations. She is also a writer and the producer/star of fitness videos. The work that Powers says is most important to her, though, is protecting wildlife in Africa via the William Holden Wildlife Conservancy, a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to the well-being of 37 species of animals whose existence may be threatened without it.

The Holden Conservancy, named for the great American actor who became interested in Africa and wildlife after making films there, has an educational program that trains people - 10,000 students per year -- in conservation, an idea which Powers says is still in some ways new.

"It is not in the popular vocabulary of some people, and this endangers the animals and their habitat. The William Holden Conservancy protects the animals and preserves their natural habitat. I began it as a posthumous honor after Bill’s death. It is situated on land Bill owned in East Kenya. He bought it in the late 1950s, when conservation was a brand new concept."

Powers has also turned her attention to Central America where she has begun the Jaguar Conservancy in Belize. Cleverly, she sought and received funding from Britain’s Jaguar motor company and its partner, Land Rover. This initiative, Powers says, is a year-and-a-half old, and she will speak about the Jaguar Conservancy during her time in Wilmington.

"Conservation makes good sense," Powers says. "It takes work and time to get that message across and make both conservation and preservation a part of our culture as humans."

Among the reasons that Powers tours in shows like "The King and I," writes books like her current volume about Pilates, "Power Pilates," and makes CDs, like her current jazz album, is to raise money for her conservancy causes.

"To make sure all public donations to the William Holden Conservancy go directly to its education and conservation programs, I pay all administrative costs, including staff salaries and wages, out of my own pocket. I am a working actress and would perform as long as I can. That said, it’s especially important for me to be on the road and to have sources of income that allow the Conservancy to devote all gifts to program."

Powers said she works hard in several fields to make sure the Conservancy is financed and can do its work. Charities are often hurt by the overhead. I personally take care of the Conservancy’s overhead. The book and CD contribute to that."

"The King and I" is not a new role for Stefanie Powers. She has played Anna Leonowens, the widow who comes to make her living as the teacher to the King’s children in mid-19th century Siam (Thailand), in England and says the acclaim she received there encouraged her to repeat the role for an American tour.

Powers says she does not want to discuss the contrast between the prim, cultured Anna and the more modern, sophisticated characters she’s created for movies and television. She is more interested in the history behind Leonowens and the true story of the woman who left colonial India to take her job in Siam.

"When you read the book on which this play is based, Mrs. Leonowens’s own book about her experiences, you see that she understood her position clearly. She was of British birth, but she had lived for many years, before and after marriage, in colonial India. She had a sense of life in Asia, even if Siam, without a British community and with customs of its own, would be different from India," Powers explained.

"Gertrude Lawrence saw Anna’s story as a great role for her, especially after the movie, ‘Anna and the King of Siam,’ came out with Irene Dunne in 1946. Lawrence went to work to have a commercial musical created for her. When you read Leonowens’s original text and see how Oscar Hammerstein II adapted it for the musical stage, you appreciate what an artist Hammerstein is and what a brilliant piece ‘The King and I’ is."

Powers is set to stay with "The King and I" through April. The last two weeks of her run will take her to her California home, Los Angeles. She will remain on the road to talk about her Pilates book and jazz CD. After all, their sales affect the finances of the William Holden Conservancy. Powers also said she will be making a movie this year. She added she did not want to speak about it because she says she prefers to wait until the movie is finished with her scenes intact before saying too much. Spoken like a veteran.

Appearing with Powers in "The King and I’s" other title role, the King, is Ronobir Lahiri, who understudied Lou Diamond Phillips in the 1996 Broadway production.

If You Go

* "The King and I" runs tonight through next Sunday, March 13, at the Du Pont Theatre, 10th and Market streets, in Wilmington, Del. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $67 to $49 and can be ordered by calling (302) 656-4401 or (800) 338-0881.

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