Wichita-based actress Karen Robu knows she's following in the footsteps of some Broadway legends — Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and, most recently, Patti LuPone — by tackling the role of ultimate stage mother, Mama Rose, in the classic musical "Gypsy."
"A lot of really wonderful ladies have played the role. But I'm not really intimidated. I think 'challenged' is a better word," says Robu, whose show opens Wednesday, kicking off the 39th season for Music Theatre of Wichita.
Hers is a rare local lead.
"I know that the usual practice for Wayne (Bryan, MTW's producing artistic director) is to bring in an Equity star from New York to head the casts. I understand that," Robu says. "That's why this is such an honor. It is very flattering. But I'm up to it."
For his part, Bryan — who is also directing this show — has no qualms about Robu being able to drive the show. In recent seasons, she's created indelible moments as the Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz" and (with her actor husband, Tim) as half of the deliciously horrible innkeepers the Thenardiers in "Les Miserables."
"I have been planning this for several years," Bryan says. "I've watched Karen since she joined our company in 1995 in the ensemble and I kept seeing her do increasingly more interesting and honest work. Karen's voice is unique and powerful. She comes at roles as an actress first with the emotion. She is capable of caressing a lyric very intimately."
The 1959 musical by Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) is based on the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee and her love-hate relationship with her ambitious and domineering mother, Rose, who lived vicariously through the vaudeville careers of her two daughters. Musical highlights include "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Let Me Entertain You" and "Gotta Get a Gimmick."
Playing the gangly young Louise, who would later blossom as Gypsy Rose Lee, is Lisa Rohinsky, a veteran of two summers in the MTW ensemble ("Cats," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "White Christmas"). She recently was the understudy for Louise in the Tony Award-winning revival of "Gypsy" on Broadway with Patti LuPone. Playing dainty June, the talented younger sister their mom wouldn't let grow up, is Eloise Kropp, a University of Oklahoma freshman making her MTW debut.
Playing Herbie, the love-struck traveling salesman who wants Rose to give up showbiz and settle down, is Timothy Robu, Karen's real-life husband and occasional co-star.
Johnny Stellard, back for his fourth year in the ensemble ("The Drowsy Chaperone," "My Fair Lady," "Cats"), is featured as Tulsa, a dance whiz who wants to team with June and start their own act without Mama Rose. The younger versions of Louise and June are played by Faith Northcutt and Addison Baker, respectively.
And the three colorful strippers who show Gypsy the ropes in the showstopping "Gotta Get a Gimmick" are local veterans Gina Austin as Tessie, Patty Reeder as Mazeppa and Cynthia Atchison as Electra.
Thomas W. Douglas will conduct a 26-piece orchestra (rare when the Broadway standard is now 13 pieces) to preserve the full sound of the original score. Choreographer Amy Baker will pay homage to the original Jerome Robbins movements.
"Gypsy," last done by MTW 18 years ago, is so perfectly crafted that it is considered one of the greatest American musicals, Bryan says.
"Even on opening night, critic Walter Kerr called it the 'best damn musical ever,' " Bryan says. "The script is compelling. Even without music, it would still be fascinating. And the songs themselves do yeoman's work. They each tell a story but they can each stand on their own. (Composer) Jule Styne was always good at popular music, but never before or after was his work so fully integrated into a show."
Actress Robu says that her goal is not for audiences to like Mama Rose but to understand her.
"I like that she is a strong woman. It's amazing to think what she did at that time. Women only got the right to vote in 1920 and she was charging around the country with a troupe of children. She was getting things done," Robu says. "But she has a dark side. She tries to live vicariously through her children. It was misguided. It wasn't healthy and we can't ignore that. I've seen other actresses make Mama Rose too soft (for likability). I want to be honest about who she is."
If you go
What: Classic musical to kick off 39th summer season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun.
How much: Tickets $20-$55 evenings; $18-$47 matinee. Call 316-265-3107 or go online at www.mtwichita.org.