Star of MTW's 'Gypsy' finds purpose both on stage and from behind a pulpit

The Rev. Dr. Karen Robu's career took an unexpected turn when she joined the ministry — but she's still one of Wichita's most respected actors.

Star of MTW's 'Gypsy' finds purpose both on stage and from behind a pulpit
Karen Robu stars as Mama Rose in Music Theatre Wichita's production of "Gypsy." Photo courtesy of Music Theatre Wichita.

Karen Robu concludes her tenure as Mama Rose in Music Theatre Wichita’s production of “Gypsy” this Sunday with back-to-back matinee and evening performances. 

But first, she’ll address a smaller and more familiar audience from the pulpit at Plymouth Congregational Church, where she serves as the associate minister. In her usual Sunday-morning costume of a black robe, the blue-eyed, curly-haired redhead will deliver a sermon she labored over for hours. 

That’s one role Robu certainly never expected to take on when she moved to Wichita in 1993 to take a six-month gig at the Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre.

“I was moving into the actor’s house for the Crown on a Saturday,” Robu recalls. “The first day I was here, I had three people ask me if I wanted to go to (their) church. I was like, ‘I think I moved to the wrong place.’” 

For more reasons than one. Robu, who was born in the U.S. but attended high school and college in Windsor, Ontario, studied musical theater and aspired to work in New York or Toronto. 

“And then I didn't,” she says.  “I settled in Wichita. And I do not regret anything I did — I love my life — but there's always this little part of you that's like, could I have?”

That kind of “coulda’-woulda’-shoulda’” is familiar to anyone who’s ever had an ounce of ambition. And it’s key to Robu’s connection to Mama Rose, the proto-stage-mom of “Gypsy,” who pushes her daughters to succeed on the 1920s vaudeville circuit to fulfill for her own faded dreams. 

“Rose’s line at the end — ‘If I could've been, I would've been. And that's show business’ — it kills me every time.”

The life Robu loves includes her husband, two daughters, a menagerie of dogs and cats, and four horses on the two-and-a-half acres where they settled in Newton. She has established herself as a formidable stage presence around town, but especially at Music Theatre Wichita, where she has performed nearly every year since 1995. She often shares the stage with her husband Tim Robu, including in the 2010 production of “Gypsy,” in which she played Mama Rose opposite her husband in the role of Herbie. (He plays three smaller roles in this season’s staging of the classic musical.) 

In a review of the 2010 production, the late Wichita Eagle theater critic Bob Curtright wrote that Robu’s voice “can blast out the back wall.” 

Her MTW credits are too numerous to list but include Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” and Maureen in both the stage production and first American cast recording of “Honk!.” She’s even swung from a chandelier on the Century II concert hall stage

Robu’s journey from the stage to the pulpit (and back again) is an improbable one. As a child, Robu (pronounced “Rob”) attended the occasional service. But during the summers, her family was more likely to spend time on her dad’s boat than in a pew. (To her father, Sundays were “a day to sleep in.”) Eventually, her mother gave up. 

Robu had no regrets about that as she moved through adolescence and into adulthood. 

“I was involved in theater in the 80s in high school and college, and I had a lot of gay friends,” she says. “I felt like the church was anti-gay, I felt like it was anti-science, I felt like it was hypocritical. I just wasn’t interested.” 

She met her husband, who grew up Catholic, at the Crown in the 90s. They developed a tradition of attending Christmas Eve services at a different place every year, but that was as far as their curiosity about church extended. 

In 2001, she was in a Music Theatre Wichita production of “Showboat” and got to talking with fellow cast member Paul Ellis Jackson. She and her husband had welcomed their first daughter the year before, and Robu was starting to wonder if church should be a bigger part of their lives. 

She remembers telling Ellis Jackson, “I kind of feel like maybe we should go to church so she can make up her own mind about things,” Robu remembers. 

He was then a member of the choir at University Congregational Church, and he invited Robu to a service. (In a neat piece of symmetry, Ellis Jackson is now the senior minister at University Congregational, another Wichita actor-turned-pastor.) 

But Robu didn’t take him up on the offer until the Sunday after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I was looking for connection, community, being part of something bigger than myself. And trying to wrap my head around what happened,” she says.  

At the first service, the pews were packed. She and her husband had to sit in folding chairs set up in the aisle. “We went from never going to church to never missing a Sunday,” Robu says. 

Not long after the family joined University Congregational, she was persuaded to join the congregation’s Christian Education Board. In 2003, she had her second daughter. Three weeks later, Robu returned to work. 

“I was working as a costumer at the Crown Uptown, making poverty wages and feeling underappreciated,” Robu says. “I was sitting on the edge of the bed just crying, and Tim's like, ‘What's the matter?’ And I said, ‘I don't know. I feel like there's something else that I'm supposed to be doing, but I don't know what it is.’”

A month later, the late Rev. Dr. Gary Cox announced that University Congregational might hire a children and youth director. Robu was interested but doubtful.

“I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I have a BFA in musical theater,” she says. “I don't know anything about Christian education.” 

But, thanks to her own research and help from a friend, she figured it out. Robu spent her first seven years in the ministry in that role, and, just before her 41st birthday, she enrolled as a part-time student at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa. In 2013, she was ordained at her new church, Plymouth Congregational in College Hill. Shortly thereafter, she began working on her doctorate. 

As part of her doctoral program, Robu wrote a play about people who had left the Christian church, which she based on extensive interviews with former members. “Suffering Church” was staged at Plymouth, Mosley Street Melodrama, in Tulsa, and at Bethel College in Newton. 

Robu knows something about dwindling membership numbers. In contrast to her first service in 2001, about 40 people attended last Sunday’s service at Plymouth.

Robu isn’t necessarily an evangelist, but she strongly believes that churches like hers have a vital role to play in a larger conversation about Jesus’ teachings and the love of God. 

“I had people telling me that the church told them they were an abomination,” she says. “You know, you were created in the image of God just like anybody else. If we don't keep the progressive arm of the church, then we have no language to speak back to that group.

“Even if that person is not going to come to church, at least they know there's an arm of the church that’s speaking against this. (The play) wasn't about talking people into coming back to church. It was letting people know that there was space for them if they wanted to be there.”

Two decades into her ministerial career, Robu is still fascinated by the parallels she finds in her dual occupations. 

“Western theater came out of religious ritual,” she says. “It was the church that stamped out theater, but the church also brought it back. That’s interesting to me.” 

Both are also places where people find connection. 

“The church has caused a lot of suffering, particularly in the LGBT+ community,” she says. “And interestingly, a lot of those people wind up in theater. And that’s where they find their community — that’s where they find their church.”

The Details

Music Theatre Wichita presents "Gypsy"
Multiple performances through Sunday, May 26, at Century II, 225 W. Douglas Ave. in Wichita
$36-$76 plus fees (if purchased online)
Learn more and buy tickets.

Read more about Karen Robu and "Gypsy" in this story by David Burke for the Wichita Eagle.

Emily Christensen is a freelance journalist and news entrepreneur based in Wichita, Kansas. She is one of the co-founders of the SHOUT. 

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