TUTS presents free summer musical at Miller Outdoor Theater.
By Don Maines
Rob Flebbe’s journey to self-discovery as a gay man rivals the storyline of Pippin, in which he plays Lewis in the July 11-16 free summer musical produced by Theatre Under the Stars’ (TUTS) at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
“Pippin is a young prince who is taken through all of these extraordinary lives in order to find his way,” says Flebbe (pronounced FLEE-bee). The show begins with the Leading Player in a troupe of thespians introducing Pippin’s story, singing that there is “Magic to Do.”
The chorus adds, “We’ve got parts to perform, hearts to warm.”
Flebbe might have welcomed such a group of actors to rescue him from Fred, Texas, the community north of Beaumont where he grew up, and the Ku Klux Klan roamed. In Fred, his happiness as a child was rudely interrupted by puberty.
“I don’t remember ever being inhibited when I was very young,” he says. “I was very passionate. I would flip and tumble and climb trees. At recess in elementary school, I would meet my best friend on the playground, and we would swing on the swing set, and sing, blaring these country-music songs. I remember it distinctly, then how inhibited and introverted I became by the time I graduated [from a tiny high school in nearby Warren, Texas].”
“In fifth grade, oh my god, I realized I had thoughts about men in ways other men don’t think,” says Flebbe. “Other men were refinery workers and truck drivers, like my dad. I was terrified. My first thought was, ‘There are no black people in Fred. I have never seen a black person in Fred. If black is not good, but people still talk about them, well, you can’t even talk about gay people, so gay must be worse than black! I cannot be changed, so what in the world am I going to do?’ In the field house, I was so intimidated, I couldn’t even take a shower.”
Flebbe did what a number of gay youth do: he threw himself into other activities as outlets for his creativity.
“I was the head cheerleader and drum major, and first-chair clarinet and all-state band my junior and senior years,” he says. “I was always very visible, but I was becoming more and more introverted. I was different; teachers didn’t know what to do with me. I just wanted out. I thought, ‘I will just wait.’”
His tickets out were music, cheerleading, and dance, which initially took him to Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, followed by Dallas, Miami, Florida, and the Big Apple.
“Coming out, that did not happen in Texas,” he says. “In New York, I discovered, ‘Gosh, the world is full of gay men.’ At that point, it was like drinking water. It was just normal then.’”
At 24, Flebbe came out to his mother.
“I thought to myself, ‘You may lose your family. Can I live without my family? Yes, I can,’” he says. “I must have nurtured myself on the inside, to have the strength to say, ‘My authentic connection to myself is that important.’”
Flebbe’s mother responded that she had sensed all along that he was gay.
“She explained that she would have always been OK [with it],” he says. “It turns out there were gay people on both sides of my family. On my dad’s side, a gay person was ostracized and moved a few states away. On my mother’s side, they were accepted, but I didn’t know that.”
Among Flebbe’s New York credits are appearances in two “gay” plays, Jeffrey and The Ritz, both at Lincoln Center.
“I was pretty well-adjusted by then,” he says, “but that still felt really special.”
In the early 2010s, Flebbe lived in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, working as a restaurant host. In 2011, he choreographed several musical sequences in Finian’s Rainbow for Bayou City Concert Musicals in 2011, and the next year, BCCM director Paul Hope cast Flebbe in the leading role of Rodney in One Touch of Venus.
“He acts, he sings, and he has incredible dance skills,” said his co-star, Danica Dawn Johnston.
Since then, Flebbe has split his time between New York and Houston, but he plans to put down local roots among the rest of the show’s Houston-based cast and creative team.
Pippin opened on Broadway in 1972 and won five Tony Awards. It returned to the Great White Way in 2013, collecting four Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical.
“Pippin is a journey of a young man trying to find out who he is and prove himself to his father. Through music and dance we live the story as orchestrated by the Leading Player with the help of her band of players. On this journey there is mystery, intrigue, deceit, death, peer pressure, despair, kindness, strength, and love. All the makings for a fun creative night at the theater,” says Michelle Gaudette, the show’s director/choreographer.
Flebbe says the show’s choreography pays homage to the late dance master Bob Fosse.
“We gays love Bob Fosse because the choreography is so mature and so sensual,” he says. “We gays love sensuality, and seeing men rocking their hips and women rocking their hips on stage.”
For showtimes and ticket info, go here.