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One from the heart

Stefanie POWERS will be trilling such Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II standards as “Getting to Know You” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” when she opens a 12-day engagement Tuesday at the Pantages Theatre in the classic musical “The King and I.”

Powers, 62, is following in the footsteps of Gertrude Lawrence, Deborah Kerr, Celeste Holm, Angela Lansbury, Constance Towers and even Marie Osmond in taking the role of Anna Leonowens, an English widow and mother of a young son, who traveled to Bangkok in the 1860s to teach the numerous children of the stubborn, proud ruler of Siam. Though Anna and the king frequently clash when she arrives, a mutual respect and unrequited love develops between the two.

Powers, a graduate of Hollywood High, was signed at 15 to a movie deal with Columbia Pictures, appearing in several films, including the 1963 John Wayne western “McLintock!” During her four-decade-long career, Powers has made more than 200 TV guest appearances.

She starred as spy April Dancer in the 1966-67 series “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E,” but she’s best known for the lighthearted 1979-84 detective series “Hart to Hart,” in which Powers and Robert Wagner played sophisticated amateur sleuths.

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So how long have you been touring in “The King and I”?

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 I did in England, Ronobir Lahiri.

Musicals don’t get much better than “The King and I.”

I think it’s fair enough to say that Rodgers & 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.

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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.

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.

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.

Well, do you have a favorite number in the show?

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My favorite number is not one that I do, but it’s beautiful....

Is it “Something Wonderful”?

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.

Have you been singing a long time?

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I have been working in England and doing a lot of work in the theater in England. My first big break was as a dancer that would sing a little, but I can’t get my leg up that high [anymore]!

Weren’t you at one point going to tour America in the revival of the 1970 Tony Award-winning musical “Applause”?

We did an ill-fated revival, proving that it shouldn’t have been revived. It had never been revived in 26 years, and I guess we proved why. It was not a good show.

The opening night Tuesday of “The King and I” is a benefit for the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in Kenya, which you founded. Can you talk about what the foundation does?

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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 spent whatever time I can there.


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