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Prairie Fire Theatre Reveals The Mother Lode In 'Gypsy'

Cristen Monson and Sandra Zielinski
Laura Kennedy
Actress Cristen Monson joins director Sandra Zielinski in exploring the complex character of Mama Rose.

Everything’s coming up roses at Prairie Fire Theatre with the staging of “Gypsy,” the classic musical which is based on the memoirs of famous strip tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee.And make no mistake, Gypsy’s name may be the title, but the show is all about Mama – Mama Rose, that is. She’s the mother of all stage mothers, a bitter concoction of ego, ambition and brassy nerve who is the driving force of "Gypsy."

“It has a good story,” said director Sandra Zielinski of the popular musical. “The story is fun, although it’s not all bright and shiny.” 

Mama Rose is a hungry powerhouse determined to get her daughters into show business at all costs. Gregarious and overbearing, Mama Rose is a handful. 

“Oh boy, does she control the roost,” said Zielinski. “But it’s all for her kids and to get out of a hole that she’s in. In the end, she learns it’s really all for her. There is an acknowledgment that it was all for her, rather than for her children.”

Portraying Mama Rose is a dream role for many actresses, including Cristen Monson, who has long coveted the part.

Cristen Monson
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Cristen Monson is delighted to at last play her dream role of Mama Rose.

“The roles for women over 50 in musical theater are pretty slim pickings,” Monson said. “And this is one of those roles that when you’re 20 you think, ‘Oh, I’m going to play that role.’ And I’ve always been in the wrong place at the wrong time or too young. And so when Prairie Fire chose this show, I thought ‘OK! I’m 50, I can do this! This may be my last chance to do this,’ and so I couldn’t pass it up.”

Mama Rose may not have a heart of gold, observed Monson. But her saving grace is her sense of humor. 

“People think of her as this typical stage mother.  She’s pushy, she wants everything for her daughters, so she’ll do anything, say anything to get what she wants. But she does have a funny side, she has this humor she uses to get what she wants. When you’re interpreting her, you can’t play her as if she’s a bad person because she thinks she’s doing everything right and that she’s being noble and sacrificing.” 

Zielinski credits Monson with a beautiful voice to fill the role. “And she has the grit that this character must have.”

That grit shows that Mama Rose would not be up for Mother of the Year.

“She plays with tactics in getting people to do what she wants them to do. Whether it’s sweet and nice, or whether it’s through blackmail, you look at her and you think, ‘My goodness, somebody should intervene.’” 

“This is in the late ‘20’s, early ‘30’s,” Zielinski explained. “So, there was a much different view of a woman in those days than there would be today. She might be brought up on charges today. But that’s not what it was when you’re looking at a depression. Looking at hard times and how do you make your money.” 

“She’s really a woman with a great heart, but sometimes she goes too far.” 

Prairie Fire Theatre presents "Gypsy" from June 13-16 in the Astroth Community Education Center Auditorium at Heartland Community College in Normal.


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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.