L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry NewsLSA DirectoryEventsContacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Business News + Industry Support

-People News

-Product News

-Theatre in Review

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

-A Theatre Project Book

Theatre in Review: Without You (New World Stages)

Anthony Rapp. Photo: Russ Rowland

Anthony Rapp's musical memoir falls firmly in the category of truth that is stranger than fiction. Part of it is the stuff of Broadway legend: The twenty-five-year-old actor, his career stuck in neutral, gets hired for a musical at New York Theatre Workshop by a largely unknown composer-librettist named Jonathan Larson. Tragedy and triumph follow with almost indecent haste: Larson drops dead the night before the first preview, never knowing that his show, Rent, will instantly become a once-in-a-generation smash hit. But there's a less well-known subplot: Even as Rent plays to sold-out houses, winning the Pulitzer and every other award in sight, Rapp must cope with his mother's terminal cancer.

It is not lost on Rapp that while he is singing, nightly, in tribute "to people living with, living with, living with/Not dying from disease," life is giving him a tutorial in mortality and its consequences. As he notes, Larson wrote Rent to commemorate the many friends he lost to HIV infection; how could he imagine that a misdiagnosed aneurysm would kill him, too, a couple of weeks shy of his thirty-sixth birthday? And, as Rapp's mother whipsaws between apparent health and grave illness, the actor must face the necessity of settling accounts with the most important person in his life.

As portrayed, Rapp's mother is a plucky, self-sufficient single parent, a highly capable nurse who is also her son's biggest cheerleader. (The family includes his father, a minor character here, and two siblings, including the playwright and novelist Adam Rapp.) Even when acting work dries up and he is reduced to toiling as a barista at Starbucks, she never loses faith in his talent. But she is less than happy when, at eighteen, he comes out to her as gay; now, with the end clearly drawing near, he wants very much to revisit the issue before it is too late. Or has he already missed the moment?

Without You is based on Rapp's similarly titled 2006 book and it often has the observant quality of good prose. At first, Rent strikes him as a rather odd proposition: "The phrase 'rock opera' didn't exactly fill me with confidence. My character, Mark, was a 'videographer.' There was also a drag queen, a rock musician, and a drug-addicted, HIV-positive S&M dancer." Perhaps his hesitation has to do with his mother, expressing her anxiety about his sexual identity in coded terms, saying, "I just think it's funny that you play all of these strange characters, because to me you're such a regular guy." (She adds that everyone loved him in The Little Prince, conveniently forgetting to mention how that doomed musical closed in previews.)

A charming account of the first day of Rent rehearsals, when everyone learns "Seasons of Love," kicks off a happy period as the show comes together. Hopes are high until the unimaginable happens. Rapp details precisely the shock of Larson's death and how the news spreads through the stunned company. That night, the first preview is canceled, replaced by a concert presentation of the score for Larson's friends and family, including his grief-stricken parents. Adam Pascal's emotionally charged rendition of "One Song Glory" sets the tone; by the time the cast gets to "Seasons of Love," Rapp muses, "It was as if Jonathan had written his own memorial."

During rehearsals, Rapp is introduced to Cynthia O'Neal, co-founder (with Mike Nichols) of Friends In Deed, an organization dedicated to helping those living with AIDS, which is featured, lightly fictionalized, in Rent. As Rapp's mother begins to fail, eventually becoming bed-ridden, O'Neal becomes a kind of Virgil, guiding him through the stages of grief and acceptance. Her friendship becomes critical as the time comes for Rapp to tell his mom, by now reduced to a wraith, that it is okay to let go.

Rapp makes liberal use of Rent's score, especially the plaintive second-act ballad "Without You," which he performs at his mother's memorial service. The songs underline the strange collision of life and art that informs a strange, never-to-be-repeated time: Playing the role of Mark, the videographer, who is furious at having to watch the people he loves grow sick and die, the actor finds himself cast in a startlingly similar role in real life. Without You also features some original musical material, most of which suffers in comparison to Larson's work; one notable miscalculation is "Wild Bill," a Wild West parody triggered by his mother's pet name for her tumor. But "That Is Not You," by Rapp and David Matos, powerfully evokes the fury and sadness he feels at barely recognizing his disease-ravaged parent; a kind of farewell letter from his mother is also movingly set to music by Rapp and Daniel A. Weiss.

Other plus factors of the production, directed with a nice light hand by Steven Maler, include Weiss' orchestrations and musical direction. (Additional arrangements are by Tom Kitt.) Eric Southern's set neatly divides up the five-person band into three zones on two levels; the set's brick walls provide a solid surface for David Bengali's collage-like projections, which evoke the Lower East Side, backstage at New York Theatre Workshop, and Rapp's hometown of Joliet, Illinois, among other locations. Bengali's images, which are laid out in a manner rather like the original poster for Rent, are nicely paired with the saturated colors in Southern's lighting palette, creating a series of attractive stage pictures. With the possible exception of "Wild Bill," which is too loud, Brian Ronan's sound design is present without being overwhelming, capturing the raw power of Rapp's voice. Angela Vesco has dressed the star appropriately.

Without You will have an obvious appeal to Broadway musical fans, especially that subset known as Rentheads; it has some of the emotional allure of Larson's Tick, Tick...Boom!, especially Lin-Manuel Miranda's film version. But many others are likely to be touched by it, including theatre-obsessed refugees from the heartland, anyone who has lost a parent at a relatively young age, or who has worried about having unfinished business with that same parent. It's an honest look back at a tumultuous time, a series of life-altering experiences packed into a few crowded, exhilarating, heartbreaking months. --David Barbour

(26 January 2023)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook