By Jeremy Miles
Hollywood veteran Stefanie Powers had never even seen a pantomime when she agreed to star as Cinderella’s Flying Fairy Godmother.
But by the time she reached Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre for preliminary rehearsals she was telling me: “It’s a bit of baptism of fire but I’m sure its going to be fun.” And I’m sure she’s right. There would seem to be little that this musical festive extravaganza could throw at her, except another facet to an already sparkling career.
Not much fazes Powers and it’s hardly surprising. She may still be best known for the TV series Hart to Hart but she has appeared in more than 200 films and her career started with a series of what amounted to master-classes from some of the most notorious and brilliant control-freaks on Broadway.
At the age of just 15 she was being directed by the great but terrifying Jerome Robbins and was soon working with the equally driven Bob Fosse.
Great names, great talents but brutally hard taskmasters. The teenage Powers encountered Robbins when he was called in to rehearse dancers auditioning for the movie version of his Broadway hit West Side Story.
Sadly she never landed the part. The astonished producers sent her home when they discovered just how young she was. But before she got her marching orders the young dancer received what she came to realise was some truly inspirational instruction. Not that it seemed much fun at the time. She recalls Robbins being particularly terrifying. “Books were written about his vitriol, he was famous for it. I used to go home crying.”
Powers may have learnt a lot but still believes the bullying was excessive. “Dancing requires an enormous amount of discipline and focus but it wasn’t necessary for him to terrorise the dancers and actors in the way that he did.” She does however have enormous respect for Robbins’ genius and says she will be forever thankful that her early experience with West Side Story coincided with a very special era of stage and screen history.
The movie, she says, was directly influenced by the groundbreaking development taking place in American theatre. “It was a reflection of the new age and Constantin Stanislavski’s method acting theories which were being embraced by people like Marlon Brando. Robbins was taking that school of acting and putting it into the interpretation of dance. So the snapping of fingers wasn’t just a frivolous pursuit it became an explosion of frustration.
"Acting through dance was very much a part of what West Side Story it was such a dramatically different kind presentation. Working with Robbins was a great privilege and now I look back on it I don’t think there has been anything to rival it.”
She recalls meeting and talking with people who were involved in the original Broadway production. It was clear that change was in the air. There was one preview where real gangs from the streets of New York’s violent West Side were invited to attend.
“They’d never been to a theatre in their lives before but when the ‘rumble’ gang fight came on they were on their feet and screaming. They were so transported by the interpretation of the story through dance that they became really emotionally involved. Incredible stuff was going on.”
It’s unlikely that Cinderella will prove quite as cutting edge as Hollywood and Broadway in the 50s but, with Christopher Biggins as Buttons and Matthew Kelly playing an Ugly Sister (his son Matt Rixon plays the other hideous sibling), she probably chosen the biggest panto in Britain to make her debut.
“The producers have been wonderful and we have mutual friends, it already feels as though I’m in the bosom of family,” she enthused. And as for the irrepressible Biggins? “I love him. He’s wonderful. No wonder he’s a national treasure.”