Stefanie Powers is better known for her love of animals than for musical theater. So it's hardly surprising that a dog is one reason the star of "Applause" is looking forward to coming to Baltimore.
"I've got a real friend to visit -- a four-legged one," Powers said enthusiastically from her dressing room in Millburn, N.J., where the new revival of "Applause" began a six-month pre-Broadway tour that brings it to the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.
Powers, who owns 27 horses, five dogs and a parrot, is traveling with two rough-coated Jack Russell terriers. The Baltimore dog she'll be visiting is a German shepherd mix named Irma.
The actress met Irma when she and Robert Wagner -- her co-star on the long-running TV series "Hart to Hart" -- were making a public service commercial for the Kentucky Humane Society. After a year in the animal shelter, Irma's "days were numbered," Powers recalls. "I had to do something."
Her chance came when she was serving as spokeswoman for London Fog's women's collection. At a Baltimore sales meeting, Gregory Scott, London Fog's corporate director of advertising, told her he was thinking of getting a dog.
"She turned around and looked right at me and said, 'You want a dog, you're going to have a dog,' " says Scott, now an advertising free-lancer. So, sight unseen, Irma was his.
Powers arranged for the dog to be driven here from Louisville. "It was big drama. A huge production number," she says.
The big drama in Powers' life right now is "Applause." Although she starred in a musical called "Matador" on London's West End in 1991 and toured the country opposite Wagner in A. R. Gurney's play "Love Letters," Powers will be making her Broadway debut in "Applause."
"Since I was a wee child I've always wanted to come to Broadway," she says, with a note of awe in her voice.
Powers admits she'd never seen the musical, which had its world premiere at the Mechanic starring Lauren Bacall in 1970. But she is an avowed fan of the 1950 movie on which it is based -- director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's back-stabbing show business classic, "All About Eve."
And she readily ticks off what she calls "interesting coincidences" between her life and the film. For example, one of her oldest friends, Mankiewicz's son Tom, wrote and directed the pilot for "Hart to Hart," as well as many subsequent episodes.
She says Tom Mankiewicz has been "very supportive" of her starring in "Applause." But his father had reservations about the musical. "I believe Joe had said, 'Why would I want to see this play? I thought I'd written a pretty good screenplay. Why would I want to see it interrupted nine times by songs?' "
Another coincidence concerns her character in the musical -- a fictitious star named Margo Channing, who falls victim to the spotlight-stealing wiles of a seemingly innocent fan named Eve. Bette Davis, who played Margo in "All About Eve," described it as her homage to Tallulah Bankhead, explains Powers, who knew both actresses and co-starred with Bankhead in her last movie, a 1965 British thriller called "Die, Die, My Darling." Like most people who worked with Bankhead, Powers has a story to tell.
"Tallulah was very frail. She arrived in England and wanted to stay at the Ritz Hotel, which at the time was a bit down at heel. They didn't maintain it terribly well, and Tallulah tripped on a poorly maintained step. She wound up tripping and falling backward. There was a photo of her falling on her rear end on the cover of a London rag sheet saying 'Tallulah's Glorious Return to England.' It put her immediately in a state of laryngitis and trauma and frailty. By the time we went into rehearsal she couldn't speak."
Bankhead, who played Powers' nasty, vengeful mother-in-law in the movie, eventually regained her strength, Powers continues. "Toward the end of the film there was a stuntman hired to drag me, as dead weight, down a staircase and through a door." Bankhead decided the man's legs could hardly approximate her own, and chose to drag Powers down the stairs herself.
"I couldn't believe it," Powers says, adding that as soon as the scene was over, Bankhead collapsed from exhaustion.
Coincidences, however, had nothing to do with Powers' winning the lead role in "Applause." Producer Fran Weissler says the actress' name simply appeared on a list of potential stars drawn up by the show's casting director. Weissler had never met Powers or seen her on stage, but was delighted to discover "that she can sing, dance and act [the role]. That was a big surprise -- that she can really dance and she can sing."
Because of Powers' dancing ability, choreographer Ann Reinking has added more dance to the show. Bacall, who originated the role in "Applause," was "an incredible presence" but admitted that "she was not a great dancer," Weissler explains. "Stefanie really can dance. So when you have an actor who's a star who can do that, you might as well use that."
The enhanced dance numbers are only one of the changes "Applause's" creative team -- composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams and book writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green -- have instituted in this reworked revival. Several songs have been replaced by new ones, two of which are sung by Powers, including a new finale. In addition, she promises, there will be "a whole new opening for the show by the time we get to Baltimore."
The chance to work with the original creative team "was an opportunity I couldn't afford to miss," Powers says, also mentioning the revival's newcomers -- director Gene Saks and Tommy Tune, who filled in for Saks for a few weeks while Saks was working with Christopher Plummer in "Barrymore" (another Mechanic season offering).
Though the major revisions should be in place when "Applause" opens at the Mechanic, changes will continue to be made here, (( according to Weissler. The new material has definitely kept Powers on her toes.
"She's doing eight shows a week and working on rehearsals all day long with major changes that sometimes don't even go into the show at night. So she's doing one show at night and a different one in rehearsal," the producer says. "I would say it's very hard on her, not having been a theater veteran, and she's not complaining and she's being very cooperative."
This schedule has meant, however, that Powers has had to develop a certain degree of tunnel vision. "It's an enormous commitment. This is not something you go into lightly, and it is to the exclusion of all other life," she says.
For Powers -- a multifaceted celebrity who plays polo, has homes on three continents and speaks seven languages -- there's a lot of "other life" to exclude. Most of her animal welfare work is concentrated on the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, a wildlife preservation and education organization she co-founded in Kenya in memory of the actor with whom she had a decade-long relationship.
"It's a very small, grass-roots, hands-on commitment," she says of the foundation. "All of those who participate are very prudent about what we do with our donor capital. We don't require as much as other organizations because I handle most of the overhead out of my pocket, which is why I have to keep working."
She and Holden spent considerable time in Kenya, where she still has a home. She acknowledges that after his death in 1981, she doubted she'd have another man in her life. "It took me 10 years to figure out that this might be OK," she says of her 1993 marriage to Patrick de la Chesnais, a French agricultural biologist, who will be coming to Baltimore to celebrate her 54th birthday Saturday. An animal lover to the core, she describes her husband as "the other pet."
Despite Powers' varied activities, she remains most closely identified with "Hart to Hart." During the series' five-year run, she repeatedly topped popularity polls as the public's favorite TV actress. After the show was canceled in 1984, she and Wagner made eight two-hour "Hart to Hart" movies, and reruns of the original continue to be broadcast a couple of times a day on the FX cable network.
Although she was disappointed when "Hart to Hart" was canceled, eight movie sequels later she says, "I think it might have run its course."
So, now it's time to try something new -- a Broadway musical. Powers cautions that her interpretation of "Applause's" Margo Channing will be distinctly her own. "I can't try to be Bette Davis or Lauren Bacall," she says. "I have to be Margo Channing as seen through me, for better or for worse, whatever that's like."
And, with six months on the road, there will be plenty of time to see if Stefanie Powers' Margo packs the power to garner applause.
Revival and rerun
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: Oct. 29-Nov. 10. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $35-$55 Call: (410) 752-1200
What: "All About Eve" -- a screening of the source movie for "Applause" to benefit the William Holden Wildlife Foundation
Where: Sony Theatres Valley Centre, 9616 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills
When: 7: 30 p.m. Nov. 3
why?Call: (410) 363-4285
Pub Date: 10/27/96