Karla Burns, Tony-nominated ‘Show Boat’ star, dead at 66

Karla Burns, Tony-nominated ‘Show Boat’ star, dead at 66

Karla Burns, best known for her role as Queenie in the musical “Show Boat,” has died. She was 66.

Burns’ sister, Donna Burns-Revels, confirmed her June 4 passing in Wichita, Kansas, following a series of strokes, according to the New York Times.

Burns, a Wichita native, began pursuing musical theater while enrolled at Wichita State University. She first clinched her career-defining role in “Show Boat” when she auditioned for a regional Wichita production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 musical, which earned her an Olivier Award and a Tony Award nomination.

She would go on to reprise Queenie at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City and for dinner theater productions in Ohio. Eventually, Burns found herself in New York, auditioning amongst hundreds of other women for a national tour.

After hitting the road for months, by 1983 she found her way back to New York, where she portrayed Queenie in a Broadway revival at the Gershwin Theater. Her portrayal garnered her a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

Karla Burns, Maureen Lipman and Jeremy Zimmerman attend the Olivier Awards Summer Party.
Karla Burns, Maureen Lipman and Jeremy Zimmerman attend the Olivier Awards Summer Party.
David M. Benett

Less than a decade later, in 1991, Burns reprised the role once more for a West End production with the Royal Shakespeare Company, for which she earned an Olivier Award for Supporting Actress in a Musical. She was the first black performer to receive an Olivier.

Though especially well-regarded for “Show Boat,” Burns additionally appeared in a 1987 Broadway production of “The Comedy of Errors,” as well as a Shakespeare in the Park version of it opposite Marisa Tomei. Her other theater projects included “South Pacific” (1986) and “Measure for Measure” (1993), amongst others.

Burns toured the country to portray “Gone With the Wind” actress Hattie McDaniel in the one-woman musical “Hi-Hat Hattie,” which documented the Oscar winner’s life. The portrayal of McDaniel is particularly significant, as played Queenie in the 1936 film production of “Show Boat.”

In 2007, Burns received an emergency thyroidectomy due to a large growth on her neck, which claimed her voice and sidelined her career. She underwent therapy to regain the use of her vocal cords and was able to perform on stage once again in 2011.