Show Boat premiered in New York on December 27, 1927. Ziegfeld previewed the production in a pre-Broadway tour from November 15 to December 19, 1927. The locations included the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Nixon Theatre in Pittsburgh, the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, and the Erlanger Theatre in Philadelphia. The show opened on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27, 1927. The critics were immediately enthusiastic, and the show was a great popular success, running a year and a half, for a total of 572 performances.
The production was staged by Oscar Hammerstein II. Choreography for the show was by Sammy Lee. The original cast included Norma Terris as Magnolia Hawks and her daughter Kim (as an adult), Howard Marsh as Gaylord Ravenal, Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne, Jules Bledsoe as Joe, Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy Hawks, Edna May Oliver as Parthy Ann Hawks, Sammy White as Frank Schultz, Eva Puck as Ellie May Chipley, and Tess Gardella as Queenie. The orchestrator was Robert Russell Bennett, and the conductor was Victor Baravalle. The scenic design for the original production was by Joseph Urban, who had worked with Ziegfeld for many years in his Follies and had designed the elaborate new Ziegfeld Theatre itself. Costumes were designed by John Harkrider.
In his opening night review for the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called the book's adaptation "intelligently made", and the production one of "unimpeachable skill and taste". He termed Norma Terris "a revelation"; Charles Winninger "extraordinarily persuasive and convincing"; and Jules Bledsoe's singing "remarkably effective".
The character Joe, the stevedore who sings "Ol' Man River", was expanded from the novel and written specifically by Kern and Hammerstein for Paul Robeson, already a noted actor and singer. Although he is the actor most identified with the role and the song, he was unavailable for the original production due to its opening delay. Jules Bledsoe premiered the part. Robeson played Joe in four notable productions of Show Boat: the 1928 premier London production; the 1932 Broadway revival; the 1936 film version; and a 1940 stage revival in Los Angeles.
Reviewing the 1932 Broadway revival, the critic Brooks Atkinson described Robeson's performance: "Mr. Robeson has a touch of genius. It is not merely his voice, which is one of the richest organs on the stage. It is his understanding that gives 'Old Man River' an epic lift. When he sings...you realize that Jerome Kern's spiritual has reached its final expression."