'Without You' review — Anthony Rapp measures a life in love and loss
"Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes..."
The immediately recognizable "Seasons of Love" appropriately kicks off Without You, the theatrical memoir of Anthony Rapp, who originated the lead role of Mark in Jonathan Larson's groundbreaking rock musical Rent. To Rapp's credit, he makes what could be a painfully cliche opening feel genuine, as though the song was written only yesterday. It's a freshness that only an original Rent star could give a 30-year-old tune.
That's also the vibe of Without You at large. The show is adapted from Rapp's same-named 2006 memoir about events that happened in the mid-90s: his rapid rise from Starbucks barista to Broadway star, which coincided with the loss of Larson and, miles from New York, Rapp's mother. He delivers this story with such passion — signaled, at times, by visible tears on his cheeks — that you'd think it all just happened.
Moments like Rapp's vivid reenactment of Rent's very first performance — a concert-style tribute to Larson, who passed away that morning — even feel like they're happening for the first time right there at New World Stages. (Indeed, Without You's official opening tonight is the 27th anniversary of that performance.) Rapp's singular look behind the scenes of the beloved musical is not only the show's biggest draw, but its greatest strength.
He breaks out all the hits — "One Song Glory," "Rent," "La Vie Boheme," "No Day But Today" — and recalls his conversations with people like Larson, director Michael Greif, and castmates Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin-Vega, skillfully mimicking all their voices. Images of various Rent-related objects and actual behind-the-scenes photos are projected collage-style on the walls behind him throughout, echoing the look of Rent's original show poster.
But half of Without You dispenses with Rent as Rapp recalls his relationship with his on-and-off sickly mother in her last years. It's impossible for such a story not to strike an emotional chord, but theatrically, the show loses momentum in these sections and reminds us of its origin as a book.
Rapp doesn't quite succeed in integrating his two throughlines, making Without You feel like two separate shows at once. There's a chasm between the rollicking energy of the Rent sections, punctuated by Larson's tunes at both joyous and sorrowful moments, and the mellow straightforwardness of the family sections, scored by Rapp's easygoing original songs. (A live five-piece band supports all of Rapp's vocals.) There's little consistency between the two, both musically and visually — the carefully curated, stylized Rent-inspired projections give way to generic art as Rapp sings his own music. And a country-inspired tune about a cancerous tumor dubbed "Wild Bill" stands out as particularly bizarre, not quite matching either section's tone.
Rapp's effortlessly affable persona, however, keeps Without You largely entertaining nonetheless. And there is one consistent through line: "Seasons of Love." The song bookends the show and pops up a few times in between. It's the first number Rapp learned at the first Rent rehearsal — the symbol of a new beginning — and a key moment in Rent's first performance after Larson's passing — the symbol of an end, "as if Jonathan had written his own memorial," as Rapp puts it. In other words, that one song ties together all of Without You's themes of life and love and loss, with no trace of its time-acquired banality.
Mrs. Rapp loved any chance Rapp got to sing, he says. She, and Larson, would be proud.
Photo credit: Anthony Rapp in Without You. (Photo by Russ Rowland)
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