Just before the curtain goes down on the current Broadway production of Show Boat, Karla Burns, as Queenie, launches into a rousing rendition of the rarely heard Hey, Feller. With calves as plump as drumsticks, she struts, shimmies and shakes her way across the stage, her bronze flapper dress swishing in time to the raucous rhymes. It is one of several highlights in a performance that has garnered Burns a nomination (as Best Featured Actress in a Musical) for one of next Sunday night’s Tony awards.
Such recognition comes as a delightful surprise to the 28-year-old mezzo-soprano. Burns considers herself lucky to have landed the role in the Houston Grand Opera revival (which toured the country for eight months before dropping anchor on Broadway). “I kept thinking, ‘When do I find out I have leukemia?’ ” she recalls. Karla, who has appeared as Queenie in three other productions, objects to charges that the character is a racial stereotype. “There are a lot of dese, dems and dose,” she admits. “But Queenie just happened to be born when there was not a lot of education.”
That was not the case for Burns, who grew up in Wichita, Kans. Karla inherited a love of music from her jazz-pianist father, who died when she was 7. She attended Wichita State, where she majored in musical education and theater performance. After graduation she began work on a master’s degree in theater performance and taught voice privately, as well as doing nightclub shows and regional theater in the Midwest. When she heard that Show Boat was holding auditions in New York last spring, she headed East with one thought: “I want to be aboard!”
The 250-pound actress needs no padding to play Queenie. “After the performances,” she says good-naturedly, “people want to poke me to find out if I am real.” She uses her size to good advantage on the nationally syndicated children’s TV show One of a Kind. As “Karla the Klown,” she reports, “I sing a song about being overweight and say you can be loved, you can be a person.” Her 26-year-old fiancé, electronics student David Sanders, agrees. Professes Karla, “He loves every ounce of me.”