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Heart to heart, with Stefanie Powers

Stefanie Powers is so nice, so disarmingly gracious, that you hate to ask her the question.

Here she is, taking a phone call during a quick break in rehearsing for The King and I. She apologizes for having to eat lunch while she's talking, but there's just no time to waste. Still, she sounds genuinely thrilled to talk about the show.

So, how can the question be posed delicately? Powers' first major film role, in Experiment in Terror, was in 1962, and she played a teenager. How is it, four decades later, at 62, to play governess Anna, who faces adversity by whistling a happy tune?

"Hmmm," she says. "I don't really know how to answer that question. I certainly don't get up every morning thinking about my age. I don't believe in numbers. If you think about it, if you let it affect your choices, then you just limit yourself. And I don't believe in doing that."

What really matters, she says, is that the show and the role are simply fantastic. Anyone would be thrilled to take on the challenge.

"I would hope we'll reach a new generation and introduce them to The King and I," Powers says. "This is everything that the great book musicals were all about. And it's not just the beautiful songs, it's the content of the songs. They researched the history and the period and the culture, and it shows in the songs."

"They" are Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who created The King and I based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who had served as governess to the king of Siam's throng of children.

"Gertrude Lawrence originally brought the story to Cole Porter, and when he didn't want to do it, she brought it to Rodgers and Hammerstein," Powers says.

For all the chirpiness of some of her songs, Anna has always been played by mature actors in major productions. Lawrence was 52 when The King and I premiered on Broadway in 1951, with Yul Brynner, 17 years her junior, as the king.

The show was immediately recognized as a milestone and is still often considered Rodgers and Hammerstein's best musical. Several of its songs _ I Have Dreamed, Getting to Know You, Shall We Dance _ are familiar to people who have never seen the show or 1956 movie with Brynner and 35-year-old Deborah Kerr as Anna.

The current tour has been on the road since June, with Sandy Duncan, 58, as Anna. Powers, who played the role for a British tour a few years back, has signed on to play Anna until December 2005.

"It was always planned that I would take over the role in 2005," she says. "I was just doing other things."

Besides, she says, the show is being retooled. Director Baayork Lee (who made her Broadway debut as one of the children in the original production of The King and I) is giving the production a makeover for the new year, the new star and the new leg of the tour.

"It's being restaged," Powers says, "so people who saw it in Fort Myers and want to make the drive up to see it again will see something a little different."

People who don't make it to Ruth Eckerd Hall for the show might get a glimpse of Powers and other cast members at Busch Gardens.

Powers is widely known for her work with wildlife. She runs the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in Kenya and has championed a number of animal-related causes.

She has a special fondness for the reticulated giraffes in Busch Gardens.

"Whenever I'm in your part of the country, I go to Busch Gardens to visit the reticulated giraffes," she said. "I was in on the capture of the original giraffes, so I always come by to see them. I call them "my giraffes.' "

Some of the Busch Gardens giraffes are ones Powers helped relocate; others are descendants of those giraffes.

The King and I cast includes dozens of children who tour with the company, so Powers' visit to the theme park will amount to something like a class field trip.

"I'm bringing the kids from the cast," she said. "We're all going to feed the giraffes."