Friday, November 04, 2005

The Powers that be Anna

With Stefanie in title role, emphasis returns to the 'I' in 'The King and I'

She'll miss the role and the songs -- and the children. She'll not forget the children, as the lyric goes.

But Stefanie Powers, who next week wraps up her 10-month national tour as Mrs. Anna in "The King and I" at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, won't spend any time yearning for the costume.

"That big hooped skirt weighs a ton," she says. "Then there's the pantaloons underneath it. And you have to wear a corset to keep everything up.

"Of course," she says, "one never knows if you're really hanging up the hoops for good. I thought I was hanging them up after the first time I did the part."

That was in London in 2002, when she took over for Elaine Paige. Then came a tour of England. Last December, when Sandy Duncan wanted to leave this American tour, Powers agreed to once more portray the embattled English schoolteacher who finds that the King of Siam isn't an easy person to have as a boss.

"I stress Anna's frustration," she says. "The King is no one's fool, and while he's not English, he is capable of running his country. At this moment in her life, Anna is without many alternatives in making a living, supporting her son, and maintaining a standard in her life. She was not privileged, or in a position to return to England, so she lives a very precarious life with not many opportunities, despite her education."

Powers, who turned 63 on Wednesday, says Anna is the lead of the show.

"Gertrude Lawrence was the original star of the piece -- and even brought the project to Rodgers and Hammerstein in the first place," she says. "However, over the years it became the King's show, because Yul Brynner made himself the focus, and played it over 4,000 times. Twelve years ago, Clear Channel (the tour's producer) wanted to put the emphasis back where it started -- on Anna."

That seems to be what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended. The King, after all, sings only one song -- "A Puzzlement" -- while Anna gets four of the show's biggest hits: "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?" (Granted, the King -- here portrayed by Ronobir Lahiri -- partners her in the last-named song.)

"I love doing that polka because it comes so naturally to me -- probably because I'm Polish," says the former Stefania Zofia Federkiewicz.

Powers finds an irony in replicating Jerome Robbins' original choreography, here restaged by Baayork Lee, who was one of the Siamese children in the original 1951 Broadway production.

"I once worked for Mr. Robbins, when he hired me (in 1960) when I was a teenager to be a Jet Girl in the 'West Side Story' movie," she says of the time when her stage name was Taffy Paul. "I was the only minor on the set. He was a very tough man, and a taskmaster who took no prisoners. It was a baptism of fire for me, because he eventually replaced me. Still, I consider it a mixed pleasure to have worked with Mr. Robbins. I wouldn't trade the agony of it all for the experience I had just being there, seeing how hard everyone worked."

Although she took a self-imposed year of exile after the firing, she re-emerged with her new name to do some films ("Experiment in Terror," "Palm Springs Weekend") and TV shows -- becoming a genuine star when portraying Jennifer the journalist in "Hart to Hart," the 1979-84 TV series with Robert Wagner.

"That's what people mention when they come to the stage door after the show," she says. "'When's "Hart to Hart" coming out on DVD?' I'm so glad it just did."

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