Neither geographic distance nor the detachment of telephonic communication can mask the magnitude of actress Stefanie Powers' considerable charisma.
Speaking from her hotel room on the opposite coast recently, Powers held forth with eloquence, humor, passion and impeccable diction on the art of acting, the Golden Era of musical theater, the perils of living in a disposable society, her passion for wildlife conservation and her concern about the fate of the planet.
Powers is currently wowing audiences playing a character very much like herself - the outspoken, upright, intelligent, thoughtful, charming and deeply compassionate governess Anna in the touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved classic "The King & I." The show visits the Civic Center for a two-night run next week.
"'The King & I' comes from that glorious golden period of American theater when one could say the art form of musical theater was created," Powers said. "We must regard these works in the proper perspective, as pieces of classical American theater. They set the standard for what musical theater is all about."
There are few works in the music-theater canon as classic and beloved as those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. And "The King & I" is one of the most brilliant and emotionally alluring of the duo's collaborations.
"What is better than 'The King & I'?" Powers asked. "It's set in a very romantic time.... We've lost that by virtue of all this reality-TV junk fouling the airwaves. It's lowered our expectations of what romance should be."
Those most familiar with Powers through her role as glamorous, globe-trotting detective Jennifer Hart in the popular TV series "Hart to Hart" might be surprised by her fervor for musical theater. But the red-haired Renaissance woman began her professional career at the age of 15 as a dancer for legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins on the set of "West Side Story."
Powers went on to amass an impressive catalog of credits that includes feature films, television series, mini-series, stage productions and even home videos on horseback riding and exercise routines.
As comfortable as she is on stage and before the camera, one would think Powers was born to be an actress. Not so, she said.
"I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was a child," Powers said. "It was a natural extension of my love for animals, and it was also inspired by the fact that my stepfather raised raceÂhorses. The vet would come every morning to the stables, and I decided that's what I wanted to do, too."
Nowadays, Powers' love of living creatures finds a powerful outlet in her work with the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, founded to honor the memory of the late actor who shared her life for nearly a decade before his death in 1981. Powers spends a significant portion of her time at the Mount Kenya Game Ranch, the foundation's wildlife sanctuary in Africa.
"We have an ongoing educational program in Kenya for the locals to familiarize them with the need for conservation and preservation and what that means to them personally in their everyday lives," Powers said. "These are people whose traditional lifestyle has come to an end. They're in transition between the tribal lifestyle and the modern age. The old ways of farming and patterns of behavior can no longer be sustained.
"We offer alternatives to destroying the habitats of animals and humans in rural areas. We are seeing results, but they're very subtle."
IF YOU GO
What: "The King & I," starring Stefanie Powers
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
Where: Civic Center, 505 W. Pensacola St.
Cost: $48, $42 and $32
Phone: 222-0400 or (800) 322-3602