Friday, April 01, 2005

'Hart' bypass

Stefanie Powers, who left her TV career behind in favor of the theater, plays Anna in 'The King and I' next week

Television used to be a king-sized part of Stefanie Powers' resume. Now, however, the stage is king in her professional life, thanks to her long-running star turn as Anna in a touring production of "The King and I."

Powers, who solved crimes with Robert Wagner in the frothy television detective drama "Hart to Hart" from 1979 to 1984, has put her small-screen past behind her in favor of live theater. Though she has yet to star on Broadway, she has starred in productions of "Oliver!" "Annie Get Your Gun" and "My Fair Lady." She also co-starred with John Barrowman in the London production of "Matador" and toured the United States as Margo Channing in "Applause."

She first stepped into the Anna role several years ago, taking over for Elaine Paige in the London revival of "The King and I." When the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein music made its way to America, she stayed with the show.

On Tuesday, the tour arrives in Los Angeles for a nearly two-week run at the Pantages Theatre. The production is directed by Baayork Lee, who played Princess Yaowlak during the musical's original Broadway run.

"I guess anyone who has ever wanted to do a musical would love to do any of the ones written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein," Powers said.

" 'The King and I,' along with 'Carousel,' are probably two of the greatest American musicals ever. Oscar Hammerstein's book for this show is wonderful. And it flows seamlessly into some of the most memorable songs, with his delicious lyrics and Richard Rodgers glorious music."

Based on the real-life adventures of Anna Leonowens, "The King and I" is a love story of a stubborn king and an equally strong-willed governess set in 1860s Bangkok. Some of the best-known tunes from the 1951 show are "Getting to Know You," "Hello Young Lovers," "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance?"

"Many people don't know that the show was commissioned by Gertrude Lawrence, who portrayed Anna," Powers said. "Sadly, she died within the first six months of the run. So the show's focus switched toward a then little-known actor named Yul Brynner, who went on to play the King for more than 4,000 performances during his lifetime. Now, with this production, there is a renewed emphasis on Anna."

Powers called Lee a wonderful and collaborative director, and said that she and choreographer Susan Kikuchi are faithful to the original intentions of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Rehearsal for the U.S. tour was assisted, Powers added, by being reunited with her "king," Ronobir Lahiri, who played opposite her during the London run.

"He's a wonderful actor, and we have such good chemistry," she said. "I'm glad he was available."

Though Powers has enjoyed the tour — it will go on hiatus for a few months after its Pantages run — she admitted that it has been hard to keep up with her other activities.

A noted conservationist, she is active in the William Holden Wildlife Conservancy, dedicated to the preservation of dozens of animals that are threatened with extinction. She also works with the Jaguar Conservation Trust, an effort on behalf of the English car manufacturer to protect its namesake animal.

She's also a fitness enthusiast, who has released a number of fitness books and DVDs. Her latest is called "Powers Pilates."

As for other acting work, there are no "Hart to Hart" reunions on the horizon, but Powers will be featured in a comedy film opening this year titled "Rabbit Fever."

For now, her life is consumed, happily, by "The King and I."

"It played a major role in establishing the era of the great American musical," she said. "And this production not only represents the glories of those golden years, but it remains as fresh and vital for audiences today."

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