Writer: Anthony Rapp
Musical Director: Daniel A Weiss
Reviewer: Lucy Thackray
The Public Reviews Rating:
Anthony Rapp’s autobiographical one-man show soared through Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival leaving a trail of soggy programmes and rave reviews. I had heard so much about the show that I knew it was right up my street – as a long-time fan of RENT, the 90s Jonathan Larson musical that made Rapp’s name, anything featuring its original star, beautiful score and unheard anecdotes about its creation sounded like a great night out. Without You charts Rapp’s journey from twenty-something Starbucks employee to landing a part in the hugely successful RENT, via the untimely death of its writer and composer Larson and the loss of Rapp’s mother. This seems heavy subject matter, but the portions where Rapp celebrates the chemistry of the cast and serendipity of the original production are so full of joy that the emotions balance out.
It does feel somewhat like group therapy, however. The audience member on the other side of my plus one wept copiously, to the point where I debated offering her my blazer as an impromptu hankie. Other sniffles were audible, and a tear of two may have graced my own cheeks, but nowhere near the outpouring of cathartic sobs that I head heard about from Edinburgh. A friend who attended both productions suggested the size and acoustics of the Menier meant some of the more anguished or emotive moments had less of an impact than in its previous home.
The aspects I had been concerned about were thankfully fine – the pace, for example, romped along with a slicker-than-slick band underscoring the short bursts of dialogue between songs, where I had pictured painfully long monologues followed after a pause by a full number. None of the RENT extracts went on too long, with the show cleverly extracting the parts that would sound most effective in Rapp’s distinctive rock tone – and he is still in fine voice. Now and again you longed for the fullness of the eight-part harmonies and the different textures of the group vocals that make RENT what it is, but the band’s adaptation of the score largely sounded like what it was: a tribute to some seriously great rock-musical writing. The moments Rapp sings No Day But Today and Without You were incredibly moving – you could have heard a pin drop. From the dialogue about the rehearsal period of the show, I felt I got to know Jonathan Larson just a little, a lovely legacy for a man who died just on the cusp of his professional success.
The only parts that jarred with me a little were Rapp’s acted-out conversations with his mother, friends and colleagues – his slight tendency to caricature or imitate those around him could be funny, but also seemed to trivialise some moments. However, even upon having that thought I admonished myself for it – who am I to dictate the most appropriate way to remember Rapp’s loved ones? This is his show, his style of performing and storytelling, and he is simply so charismatic that you can’t help but go along for the ride. The audience surrenders to Rapp’s vision, laughing, crying and smiling along with him (plus the most organic and rhythmic instance of clapping along to a song I’ve ever witnessed in a British audience). This was, of course, the wonderful Seasons of Love, adapted to a funky, rock-gospel solo for Rapp to conclude the show (the band are absolute pros, a pleasure to listen to throughout). Though Without You may be tricky to dive into without a basic love of RENT, for a fan this show is a fascinating trip into a near-perfect moment in musical theatre history.
Runs until 15 September.
Image credit: © Nobby Clarke.