At the Panasonic Theatre, Toronto. Written and performed by Anthony Rapp. Directed by Steven Maler. Designed by Knifedge. Lighting by Tim Mascall. Sound by Gareth Owen.
David Mirvish presents the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre Production of Without You.
In 1994 the musical theatre got a kick in the pants with the audacious arrival of a rock opera named RENT. It was an updated version of Puccini’s La Bohème, and centred around a group of ‘starving’ artists, drag queens, and people with HIV living in the East Village of New York City. The music and lyrics were written by Jonathan Larson who was hailed as a wunderkind based on the musical, his first. RENT sold out its three week workshop production; went on to sell out its off-Broadway run; transferred to Broadway where it got rave reviews, won several awards including the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Musical, and ran for 12 years. Heartbreakingly Jonathan Larson never saw this huge success because he died the day before the final dress rehearsal of the Off-Broadway run. In spite of obvious symptoms that something was wrong Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm.
Anthony Rapp was an actor struggling to get a footing in the theatre and got his break when he auditioned for and won the lead role of Mark in RENTem>. Rapp also originated the role on Broadway and in the film.
Without You is Anthony Rapp’s memoir of the heady times involved with RENT. The anticipation leading up to the workshop production; the elation at working on such exuberant, vibrant material; the stunned heartbreak when he heard that Larson was dead and the emotional rollercoaster of doing the show after that.
Rapp was also experiencing his own personal agonies. His mother, with whom he was very close, was diagnosed with cancer two years before, went into remission but then the cancer returned while he was in New York with RENT. Rapp would go home to Illinois to see his mother as often as he could. Matters got more and more alarming as she got more and more frail. She was able to see her son in his Broadway debut when she attended the Broadway opening night of RENT.
Rapp has been doing Without You since 2008. He took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this past summer and also played the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. He beautifully conveys the elation an actor feels when he is working with what he considers to be quality work. He deals with all the uncertainty, emotional ups and downs and fragility one would experience dealing with a sick family member; not knowing how to cope with the reality of the serious situation; not knowing how to say good by and regretting that he didn’t tell Larson how much he was grateful for the chance to be in his show and how much he was glad to know him. In a scene we have all experienced Rapp says that he figured he would tell him all that ‘tomorrow.’ Which of course never came.
He dots his narrative with many songs from RENT as well as his audition piece of “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M and a powerful rendition of “Without You.” He is backed by a 6 person rock band.
The show is guaranteed to draw tears—I heard several people in the audience sniffling and I don’t think they had a cold. Bring Kleenex. As for me, I was dry-eyed and perhaps jaw clenched. For all his exuberance at the material I found Rapp’s playwriting lacking (interestingly, his brother Adam is an accomplished playwright). He tells us that Larson died but doesn’t tell us from what. And certainly that bit about the cause being undiagnosed would pack an emotional wallop. He suggests he is so concerned about his mother’s health but when she seems to be getting better, he doesn’t call home very often saying he was busy with the show. Lame excuse? Deluded? Self-absorbed? His mother was a nurse yet seemed almost naïve about facing her own sickness. Possible, but it still seems odd. As for his acting, Mr. Rapp telegraphes every emotional moment before it happens; head down, sad look on his face; wistful. It all seems fake and that he is playing us. So it’s hard to tell what is more to blame, Rapps’ weak writing or his weak acting?
I wish Steven Maler was a better director. He might have helped Mr. Rapp to tell the story without seeming so emotionally manipulative. Mr. Maler appears to be that kind of director that thinks flashy lighting effects are cool and keeping his actor always on the move, hauling chairs from one location to another is helpful in setting the scene. Sorry, no. I thought that if Mr. Rapp moved one more chair from one side of the stage to the other I would scream: “leave the bloody chairs where they are. When you move to one chair or another we KNOW you’re in a new location.” And while the band is very energetic they often drowned out Mr. Rapp even though he was microphoned and bellowing.
In his bio in the program it says that he is best known for originating the part of Mark in RENT. But that was 1996. He has done some theatre and film since then, but nothing on the scale or notoriety as that show. My cynical side wonders if Without You is a make-work project for him.
Without You plays at the Panasonic Theatre until January 6, 2013.