BWW Reviews: Anthony Rapp's WITHOUT YOU a Triumphant Reminder of Importance of 'No Day But Today'
Anthony Rapp's one man show 'Without You' opened last night at The Panasonic Theatre as the second offering in the brand new Off-Mirvish Season. The show is based on his book by the same name, a memoir which chronicles his journey as a member of the original cast of the hit musical RENT as well as his struggle to deal with the loss of the show's creator Jonathan Larson and the death of his mother from cancer.
When I first heard that Rapp would be turning his book into a show, my immediate reaction was a combination of shock and trepidation. Shock because I was unsure how he would be able to relive such painful memories night after night, and trepidation because I knew that with the highly personal subject matter it would be a very difficult show to pull off successfully. That said, I loved the memoir and went into Without You rooting for Rapp to find a way to tie it all together in a memorable evening of theatre.
I'm happy to report that in my opinion, he not only succeeded in finding a way to present the material as a unique theatrical event, but what he has created is something truly special. Rather than being a maudlin show about death and grief, he has created a production that at its core is a celebration of life, very similar to the musical which clearly had such a large influence on the production.
In many ways Without You is beautifully simple - the staging is minimal, the lighting is effective without being obtrusive and Rapp is joined by a small five piece band who provide the music that frames the story. While much of the music is taken from RENT, there is also a touching rendition of R.E.M.'s Losing my Religion and some original material. The music serves to accentuate the story instead of actively tell it, and Rapp has made excellent choices with regards to song placement. When he breaks into the refrain from Another Day it was hard to find a dry-eye in the house, and La Vie Boheme was used at the perfect time to provide a bit of humour and light to some of the show's darker moments.
Rapp effectively characterizes everyone in his story, from Jonathan Larson to RENT's director Michael Grief to his mother Mary Lee. Each person is given unique inflections and physical movements which make it easy to tell that he has switched to another character, and when he portrays the moments between himself and his mother, he exudes a quiet heartache that effectively conveys the spirit of the entire show.
When dealing with the issue of Jonathan Larson's untimely death, Rapp succeeds in transporting the audience to that day at the New York Theatre Workshop when the cast and crew of RENT had their lives forever changed, and the heartache is palpable. This is accentuated as he segues into recollections of trips home to see his ailing mother, suffering from a recurrence of 'Wild Bill', a cancerous tumour they had thought she had beaten. Rapp struggles with issues of guilt over being away from home when his mother was ill, as well as helplessness over not knowing how to help her, all the while keeping his composure and demonstrating to the audience how very real a struggle the slow and painful death of a parent can be.
Thankfully, at the exact moment where I was starting to worry the show might be becoming a bit too sombre, the message of love and life that is so prevalent throughout the musical RENT shines through. Rapp takes to the stage to embody the character of Cy O'Neal, the founder of Friends In Deed, and delivers a powerful message about coping with a loved one's impending death: "Your heart is breaking. But you must allow it to break. Let it break open. The only way out is through." It was a simple message, but one which resonated powerfully throughout the theatre.
In the end, Without You is not just the story of Anthony Rapp's experiences with RENT and the losses in his life. It is in many ways the story of anyone who has learned to live life to the fullest in the face of grief. The music of RENT and Larson's powerful message of 'No Day But Today' ring loud and strong throughout the show, but in the end, Rapp has succeeded in doing something amazing - he has created his own message to the world. Taking the advice of Larson, Cy O'Neal and many others who helped him - 'Without You' has become a powerful 80 minute life-saving guide about how to live with grief, move through it and learn to love again. I can't think of a better message to give to the world this holiday season, and I tip my hat to Rapp for having the courage to stand on stage every night and share his show with the world.