Monday, October 31, 2005

Powers reveals what makes 'King' so special

Stefanie Powers, a Hollywood native best known as the co-star of the TV series "Hart to Hart," isn't interested in answering personal questions.

The auburn-haired singer, animal-lover and multilingual president of the Kenya-based William Holden Wildlife Foundation preferred in a recent interview to talk about the musical "The King and I."

Powers plays Anna, governess to the King of Siam's brood of children, in the national tour of the Oscar Hammerstein II-Richard Rodgers musical that opens Tuesday night at the Kentucky Center. Before signing on for the U.S. tour, Powers portrayed Anna on a national tour in the United Kingdom opposite New York actor Ronobir Lahiri, who also plays the King of Siam in this touring production.

"The King and I" first opened on Broadway in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence as Anna and Yul Brynner as the titular king. It won five Tony Awards, including best musical. A 1956 film adaptation with Brynner and Deborah Kerr won an equal number of Academy Awards.

When she isn't on the road, Powers, who turns 63 on Wednesday, lives in Los Angeles or Kenya. The world traveler has visited Kentucky several times for the Kentucky Derby. She also appeared here with "Hart to Hart" co-star Robert Wagner in the play "Love Letters."

Recently, Powers spent about 20 minutes fielding questions from The Courier-Journal. Here is an edited version of that interview.

Do you have good memories of your past Louisville visits?

Oh, yes. Very positive. We look forward to that beautiful theater. It makes a big difference for us backstage.

Any idea how many interviews you've already given for "The King and I"?

Tons and tons. I don't know how many. You know, I did this in England. I don't know what you've read, but this play was a commission. Gertrude Lawrence was a great Broadway star and she was looking for a vehicle for herself. She bought the rights to the story and commissioned Rodgers and Hammerstein to write it. … The poor thing, she had cancer while they were developing it and died shortly after it opened on Broadway. In the meantime, they had discovered this virtual unknown, Yul Brynner, who did more than 4,000 performances of "The King and I" over his lifetime.

Have you ever been to Thailand yourself?

Many times.

What is special about this touring production?

This probably is the last time that a production of this size and quality -- and having received the "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval from the Rogers and Hammerstein estate -- may be presented. We also have a particular cachet that makes this doubly unusual. This is directed by the woman (Baayork Lee) who as a child was the original Princess Ying Yaowlak, the youngest member of the cast. In addition, the choreographer (Susan Kikuchi) is the daughter of the original lead dancer, who was designated as keeper of the flame for Jerome Robbins' original choreography.

What are the defining traits of Anna in "The King and I"?

Mr. Hammerstein did an extraordinary job of research … and produced the archetypal Colonial British woman of that period. They were very specific. When I was asked to play this in England, I worked with an elocutionist from the National Theatre. … She was of Welsh parentage, born in the Far East. Her parents were in the foreign service and she was married to a British officer.

I live in a former British Colony, Kenya, and have spend a lot of time in former British colonies. … And I suppose that particular arrogance of the Empire was rather prevalent in the way they conducted themselves.

How did you prepare for the role?

The show went along with my curiosity about history. It was a happy marriage and I could intellectually adapt, but I also had to physically adapt. I had never sung operetta before so I worked with opera coaches. I have done lots of musicals but not in this register. I also worked on the posture and decorum of that time period and the ways in which she spoke. It was an interesting journey.

How does the U.S. tour compare with the English tour?

It is very different. This is a huge country and the distances are great. And the comedy (within the show) plays so much better in the United States because it was written by two Americans and it is part of the great American art form.

Is it true that you fluently speak seven languages, including Swahili, Mandarin Chinese and Polish?

I speak fluently about six. I have lost a lot of my Chinese because I don't spend time there.

What do you think is the most common misconception about you?

I don't know. I don't think about myself that much.

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