Some performances of this classic musical benefit her wildlife charity in Kenya.
It's good to be king. It's better to be Stefanie Powers.
Powers is the "I" in the touring production of The King and I that opens tonight at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre; she's also the one who gets her name listed above the title in this production.
That's because Powers, 62, 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 -- real name Stefania Zofia Federkiewicz -- gets around in real life, too, with homes in Kenya, England and her native California. With this role, she follows in the footsteps of Gertrude Lawrence, Deborah Kerr, Celeste Holm, Angela Lansbury and even Marie Osmond. As Anna Leonowens, an English widow and mother of a young son, she travels to Bangkok in the 1860s to teach the numerous children of Siam's stubborn, proud ruler. Though Anna and the king frequently clash when she arrives, a mutual respect and unrequited love develops.
Question: So how long have you been touring in The King and I?
Powers: Since January. But I did it in England two years ago. I have not been around a lot in the United States. I was married to a Frenchman -- we have been divorced now -- and living outside the United States a great deal and doing a lot of work in Africa, as is my habit. It was a nice opportunity to work with the same actor [as the king] as I did in England, Ronobir Lahiri.
Q.: Musicals don't get much better than The King and I.
Powers: I think it's fair enough to say that Rodgers and Hammerstein are some of the best of the best [composers], and hardly anything they did did not have a wonderful female role. But I think this is the biggest and the best.
In actual fact, it was commissioned by Gertrude Lawrence as a vehicle for herself. She owned the rights to Anna and the King of Siam, which she then shopped around. When [Rodgers & Hammerstein] were interested in doing it, they joined forces. But poor Miss Lawrence was suffering from cancer and during the first six months of the play's run she died.
Q: The "Shall We Dance?" number is the stuff of a lot of little girls' fantasies -- Anna waltzing around with the king in that beautiful gown.
Powers: Do you know how much it weighs? Would you like to have it on? Oh my God. It's a monster of a costume. You are wearing pantaloons and everything underneath, and you have to have the corsetry to be able to hold up the skirt. It is probably much more fun to watch.
Q: Do you have a favorite number in the show?
Powers: My favorite number is not one that I do, but it's beautiful.
Q: Is it "Something Wonderful"?
Powers: Yes. That is the showstopper. Truly, it's a pleasure to be doing a play where you are not only privileged to do a work of such magnificence from start to finish but also to be bringing it to whatever new audiences we have, the children, certainly, and other people who somehow managed to miss it. . . . This is the great American art form.
Q: Have you been singing a long time?
Powers: I have been doing a lot of work in the theater in England. My first big break was as a dancer who would sing a little, but I can't get my leg up that high [anymore]!
Q: Some performances on this tour have benefited the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in Kenya, which you founded. Can you talk about what the foundation does?
Powers: The foundation works in concert with a game ranch. It was established to carry out the concept of backing up specific-animal preservation with education. On one hand, you can do the work of preserving the animals with captive-breeding programs, but if you don't educate people for the long term, the minute your back is turned, the animals will be gone. So the education part of it is crucial to any long-term preservation concept. I spend whatever time I can there.