The world has celebrated Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's "Show Boat" since 1927, but the Washington National Opera's new version, directed by Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, is fresh, vigorous and distinctive, emphasizing the world that existed around the showboat performers of 19th-century America.

One hundred singers, actors and dancers participate in this "Show Boat." Some singers come from the opera world, others from Broadway, but their voices blend seamlessly. "Show Boat" takes the audience through 40 years in the lives of various performers on the Cotton Blossom, a paddlewheel bringing entertainment up and down the Mississippi from the late 1880s to 1927.

The main characters include the ship's captain, Andy (Lara Teeter), his wife, Parthy (Cindy Gold) and their daughter, Magnolia (Adriana Churchman); a stevedore, Joe (Morris Robinson) and his wife, Queenie (Angela Renee Simpson); a singer on the boat, Julie (Alyson Cambridge); a riverboat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal (Michael Todd Simpson); and performers Ellie (Kate Loprest) and Frank (Bernie Yvon).

The plot follows Magnolia as she falls in love with Ravenal, and Julie as she leaves the showboat. In the process of telling their stories, Hammerstein's book covered a wealth of real-life issues: alcoholism, racism, abandonment and addiction. But the harsh realities of the book are contradicted by the sweeping beauty of Kern's music and the poetry of Hammerstein's lyrics.

If you go
'Show Boat'
» Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW
» When: Through May 26
» Info: $30 to $270; 202-467-4600, 800-444-1324;; the Kennedy Center double-casts some roles. The singers mentioned above performed on May 4.

Robinson's bass voice is rich and beautifully articulated, his "Ol' Man River" commanding and profound. Angela Renee Simpson's powerful soprano delivers one of the most moving songs in the show: "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'."

Although trained as an opera singer, Cambridge sings the bluesy "Bill" to perfection and her pure soprano introduces one of the show's most famous numbers: "Can't Help Lovin' That Man." Churchman captures Magnolia's innocence, sadness and determination. Baritone Michael Todd Simpson's voice is robust yet gentle, particularly in "Make Believe" and "You Are Love."

Peter Davison's set allows for smooth, rapid transitions from indoors to outdoors, using flats advertising fish and cigars to indicate that the scene is outdoors. When the scene requires it, the flats slip offstage to reveal the massive red and white Cotton Blossom.

The beautifully draped costumes by Paul Tazewell employ plenty of color, especially red, white and blue. Michele Lynch's choreography is a brilliant reflection of dance styles spanning the showboat's decades, from the cakewalk to the Charleston.

The WNO Chorus, under the direction of Steven Gathman, is largely responsible for the musical's successful portrayal of the audience, the dock workers, and the entire community for whom the Cotton Blossom exists. And this "Show Boat" is all about community.