By Sarah Linn
When Kristin Towers-Rowles steps onstage in Opera San Luis Obispo’s production of “Show Boat,” she’ll be forging a bridge to her family’s past.
Towers-Rowles stars as Magnolia, the same role her grandmother, Kathryn Grayson, played in the 1951 film version of “Show Boat.”
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“It’s such a neat opportunity,” she said. “It’s really special to me.”
“Show Boat,” playing this Mother’s Day weekend at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, holds magical memories for many — thanks to its sweeping storyline and lush songs such as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe” and “Ol’ Man River.”
Based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel of the same name, “Show Boat” follows the performers, stagehands and dockworkers who live and work aboard the Mississippi River showboat Cotton Blossom — including Capt. Andy Hawks (Larry Kami), his wife Parthy Ann (Sandy Schwarer) and their daughter Magnolia. Husband-and-wife team Steve (Michael Tevlin) and Julie (Katie Guick) lead the Cotton Blossom’s acting troupe, while Joe (Dan Tullis) serves as stevedore and his wife Queenie (Erika Bowman) runs the kitchen.
When riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Craig McEldowney) meets Magnolia — or “Nola,” as she’s known — it’s love at first sight. However, her parents disapprove of Ravenal’s shadowy past.
“She brings out something in him (through) her naivete and her lack of bitterness,” Towers-Rowles explained. “She’s just this open, honest, lovely young woman … and he sees all the things in her that he isn’t.”
“Show Boat” follows Nola and Ravenal over the next 40 years through romance, ruin and redemption. Even though the couple parts at one point in the story, Towers-Rowles said, “(Nola) never becomes bitter toward him because the love she has for him transcends circumstances.”
Towers-Rowles said she relates to Nola’s journey from innocent ingénue to seasoned performer and parent.
“I understand the young, naïve girl because part of me will always be that,” she said, “and I understand the woman who has to put her child first and work because I am that woman.”
The daughter of actors Robert Towers (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and Patricia Towers (“The Squid and the Whale”), Towers-Rowles has been a musical theater aficionado from the start.
“My passion (was) really to be on Broadway,” she said. “That was my goal.”
Tower-Rowles started taking voice lessons from her grandmother, whose film credits included “Anchors Aweigh” and “Kiss Me Kate,” at age 16. The Woodland Hills native also spent holidays and summer vacations at Grayson’s Santa Monica home.
After training at the Performing Arts Magnet program at Hollywood High School and The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York — she attended the latter alongside Kelrik Productions co-founder Erik Austin — Towers-Rowles returned to Los Angeles to work in theater. She toured nationally with shows including “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Mikado,” and sang in concert versions of “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” in Europe and Taiwan.
Her career came to an abrupt halt at age 27 when she injured her back while playing Junior Asparagus in a national touring production of “Veggie Tales Live!”
Even after two years of physical therapy, “I was told I wouldn’t be onstage again,” Towers-Rowles recalled. “It was devastating.”
The actress took a seven-year break from performing, wedding husband Ryan Rowles and giving birth to three daughters, Ryanna, Makayla and Amelya. She returned to the stage in January 2009.
“I’m a theater person through and through,” said Towers-Rowles, who is currently starring as Jane in Kelrik Productions’ “Tarzan: The Stage Musical” at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. “When I went back to performing, it was like the lights just turned on.”
The actress is especially excited to be making her “Show Boat” debut.
“If they’re going to choose to do a musical, they could not do a better one,” said Towers-Rowles, praising the “glorious” score created by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. “That’s one of the reasons this musical has stood the test of time for 80 years.”
IF YOU GO
7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$10 to $75
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org