Allow me to introduce the newest representative of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s youth movement: Chase Brock, who at the age of 29 has already performed and choreographed on Broadway.
And now he’s in town to create the dances for the Rep’s production of “Pippin,” which begins previews Friday in the Spencer Theatre.
Brock and Eric Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director, agree that the goal here is to re-imagine the iconic early ’70s musical fable, which made Ben Vereen a star and remains one of the key productions directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse.
In the case of the Rep production, banishing memories anyone may have of earlier versions of the show shouldn’t be too difficult. There hasn’t been a professional production here in decades.
Brock, whose resume includes choreographing the retooled version of Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” said he had known Rosen’s work for some time. He had been to Kansas City to see Rosen’s production of “Winesburg, Ohio,” and had seen at least one other show Rosen directed.
“So he was on my radar as somebody doing really interesting work,” Brock said. “And Kansas City Rep was on my radar the last few years. Word had made it back to New York that Mary Zimmerman did something here, and David Cromer did something here. But Eric and I share an agent in New York, and that’s who actually put us together.”
“Pippin” was created by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Roger O. Hirson (book). It depicts a ragtag group of players who perform the story of Pippin, the son of Charlemagne, who embarks on a quest to find fulfillment. Rosen’s production requires the actors to play multiple instruments, and Brock said “punk” was the best word to describe the dances.
“It has a real punk sensibility, and a really wild, very athletic, very physical, aggressive, muscular language,” he said.
Brock said that when people ask him to describe his style, his response is usually the same: It depends on the show.
“The show tells me what it needs to be,” he said.
In the case of “Pippin,” the style is dictated by “the desire on Eric’s part to really re-invent the staging concept and mode of delivery.
“We’re not changing the script. But the way the story was told — frankly it’s dated now. And everything that was so innovative about the staging of ‘Pippin’ has become a cliché now, because everybody’s copied it for 40 years.”
Brock said he’s never worked on a production of the show, and he’s seen it on stage only once.
“But the DVD has been in my life since I was a starstruck teenage musical-theater nerd,” he said. “And Ann Reinking (a longtime Fosse associate who performed in the original cast) was one of my earliest mentors.”
Brock was born and raised in Flat Rock, N.C., where he began taking dance and theater classes as a child. His parents were supportive and drove him everywhere as he studied ballet, tap and other dance styles from various instructors. When he was 16, he moved to New York. For good.
“I actually moved to New York to be in Susan Stroman’s revival of ‘The Music Man’ on Broadway,” he said. “I did the whole run. It was two years.”
The year before, Brock said, he had auditioned for Cirque du Soleil and was offered a job.
“I think that was kind of the lightbulb that went off, and my parents said, ‘OK, you can do this; maybe you’re ready to do this,’ ” he said. “Dance careers are notoriously short and they start early.”
When he read about the “Music Man” revival, that the producers were looking for young dancers specifically, he decided to go for it.
“So with all the naïveté of youth, I said to my parents, ‘Buy me a plane ticket and I’ll go. I’ll get cast. I’m right for it. I’ve already done it. I know the show,’” he recalled. “And they actually did buy me the plane ticket and I went up to a big open call with about 600 kids and they hired three of us. I did get the job.”
He returned home, got his GED at a local community college and moved to New York to begin rehearsals — and his professional career.
The “Spider-Man” gig came about when director Phil McKinley, who took over the show after the departure of Julie Taymor, asked him to come aboard. He retained some of the original choreography but also came up with new material.
“We had three weeks of rehearsal while the company was still doing the other version of the show,” he said.
The producers agreed to hire a second company of performers, just for rehearsals, so Brock could build new numbers from the ground up.
Then the production went on hiatus for three weeks, during which the cast worked furiously to learn the new material.
“By the end of that we had a full run-through of the new show and then two weeks of tech,” he said. “And then one month of previews.”
Brock talks like a veteran — calm, in control, confident of his abilities. In conversation, you have to remind yourself that he’s only 29. Brock said he hopes the Rep’s production of “Pippin” can reach a young audience.
“I hope young people in particular could see it for the first time and feel like it could be written now,” he said. “We want it to feel absolutely contemporary.”