SAN FRANCISCO -- "Show Boat" docked Sunday at the War Memorial Opera House to open San Francisco Opera's summer season. You may already know its story line, which ranges across 40 turbulent years of American history. You certainly know its tunes. You absolutely should experience this production.

The groundbreaking work by composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II remains memorable -- and relevant -- musical theater, nearly 90 years after its New York premiere in 1927. Directed by Francesca Zambello, the production unites actors and singers from opera and Broadway to zinging effect. They feed off one another. The songs soar. The emotions are big. Good luck leaving the theater with dry eyes.

A couple of highlights: There's granite-voiced bass Morris Robinson, as the stevedore Joe, pacing himself through "Ol' Man River," aligning with the show's African-American chorus to build this iconic number -- part spiritual, part dirge -- into a majestic cry for justice. There's actor and comic Bill Irwin, as Cap'n Andy Hawks, who is all fluid motion and spark-plug energy: clowning, moon-walking or floating like Fred Astaire. His face is plastic. He is pure expression and heart -- an unforgettable performance.

Zambello, conductor John DeMain and David Gockley, the company's general director, have argued that "Show Boat" -- merging elements of Broadway, operetta and opera -- belongs in the opera house. Kern composed his soaring numbers for trained operatic voices. Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations (which DeMain conducts here, snappily) call for an orchestra of 50.


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It is a spectacle worthy of opera and demanding a major company's deep pockets. On stage at War Memorial, there are nearly 80 actors, singers (including two choruses, one black, one white) and dancers (a phenomenal bunch, whether stepping through the black bottom or the fox trot). Peter J. Davison's grand sets and Paul Tazewell's period costumes are a bonanza of color and effect. If anyone doubts the show's operatic credentials, consider that Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" and Johann Strauss II's "Die Fledermaus" are "light fare" operettas, long ensconced in the repertory.

Not that "Show Boat" is light fare. What it is is an intensely American hybrid, celebrating vaudeville, jazz, opera, spirituals and popular song. It addresses distinctly American themes: racism against African-Americans and opposition to inter-racial marriage, especially. These themes play out aboard the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater -- a showboat with its own troupe, led by Cap'n Andy.

His daughter, Magnolia Hawks (soprano Heidi Stober, perfect as the ingenue), is the story's pivot. We follow her through her ill-fated marriage to gambler Gaylord Ravenal (baritone Michael Todd Simpson) in the 1880s, and then through single motherhood and her resolute fashioning of a career in the 1920s New York theater. A subplot involves Magnolia's best friend, Julie La Verne (soprano Patricia Racette), who is bi-racial and has been "passing" for white. Discovered by the authorities, she and her white husband, Steve, are forced to leave the troupe, which performs to segregated audiences.

There's tragedy aplenty, though the show's underlying message is one of joy. To hear "You Are Love" sung by Stober and Simpson is to hear a classic operatic duet, as fragrant as Puccini. "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," as ignited by Racette and chorus, will ring in your ears long after the curtain falls (though the soprano really found her mojo on "Bill," a heartbreaker).

As Queenie -- Joe's wife, as well as cook on the Cotton Blossom -- soprano Angela Renée Simpson leads two powerful numbers: "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'" (ominous gospel) and "Hey, Feller" (foot-patting jazz), which foreshadow two sides of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." Simpson sings with bell-clear chest tones and blues, marrying the two worlds at the heart of this remarkable show.

The choruses are on fire. The dancers are off the charts, thanks to choreographer Michele Lynch. As the vaudeville duo Schultz and Schultz, Kirsten Wyatt (a total sketch as Ellie Mae) and John Bolton (as Frank) spell comic relief. Carmen Steele, who portrays Young Kim, Magnolia's daughter, is a natural actor and pure-voiced singer.

True, there are some filler tunes, and not every audience member will enjoy the vaudeville mugging and slapstick. (I did.) Opera purists may object to the amplification of spoken dialogue (as well as some of the singing) in this production, which previously was staged at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera and Washington (D.C.) National Opera.

That said, this show resonates in so many ways. Consider this: In 1927, Kern and Hammerstein chose to portray a pair of equally devoted (and comically bickering) couples -- one black (Joe and Queenie), one white (Cap'n Andy and Parthy, portrayed by feisty Harriet Harris; and, yes, you know her from television's "Frasier"). That is astonishing.

Like so much else in "Show Boat."

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

"Show Boat"
Music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; based on the novel "Show Boat" by Edna Ferber, performed by San Francisco Opera
Through: July 2
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $24-$379; 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com