Review: Without You (Off-Mirvish)

Mirvish presents RENT’s Anthony Rapp in his poignant solo show Without You at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre

In high school, I was a huge RENT fan. The prolific pop-rock musical, a story about a group of struggling artists dealing with the realities of HIV/AIDS in New York’s East Village in the mid-’90s, captured the voice of a generation of starving artists and the imagination of middle-class suburban kids like me who fetishized their New York boho lifestyle. 

The CD of the original cast album of RENT was a near-constant fixture in my Discman and I could often be heard jumping around and loudly singing along to songs like La Vie Bohème and What You Own. So Anthony Rapp, who originated the role of Mark in RENT, was definitely a huge part of the soundtrack of my youth.

The backstage story of RENT is nearly as dramatic as the one on stage. On the eve of RENT’s off-Broadway premiere, RENT’s creator/composer/lyricst Jonathan Larson died suddenly and unexpectedly. A struggling artist himself, he would never know the massive success his show would eventually attain.

Larson’s untimely death is the starting point for Anthony Rapp’s musical memoir Without You. Based on his 2006 book of the same title, Rapp debuted his solo show to sold-out houses this past summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Mirvish is presenting the show in Toronto as part of it’s Off-Mirvish second stage series before Rapp opens the show in New York next year.

Going in I didn’t know what to expect, a one-man “musical memoir” sounds like it could be incredibly self-indulgent. Luckily, Rapp’s down-to-earth nature and bashful boy-next-door charm is disarming and he comes across as completely likable and relatable.

The first half of Without You centers on the creation of RENT. Rapp takes us through a series of anecdotes from his auditions to meeting Jonathan Larson for the first time to his first rehearsals with the RENT cast. As a RENT fan I found the first-hand accounts fascinating and the piece works as a companion to the musical but I don’t know how interesting it would be for somebody who hasn’t seen RENT.

Rapp is backed by a five-piece band and music is featured throughout the show. Rapp performs snippets of songs, usually in context; he takes us through the story of the RENT cast learning the show’s signature song, Seasons of Love, and performs a rendition of REM’s Losing My Religion which was his audition song for the show.

To be honest, I don’t think the music is the show’s strongest suit. Rapp’s trademark rough-around-the-edges delivery won’t be to everybody’s liking. The excerpts give us a taste but rarely a satisfying helping of any individual song. The Panasonic Theatre is also an acoustically unforgiving house and the mix sounds somewhat flat.

The show really comes into its own in the second half when Rapp describes his harrowing experiences watching his mother die of cancer. His stories are sincere and his emotions are heart-wrenching and raw. Rapp wears his heart on his sleeve and he candidly shares some of the most difficult moments of his life.

I think anybody who has ever lost somebody they loved or had to watch a loved one endure an illness can relate. We share in his heartache and experience his grief. I found this part of the show deeply affecting and I really wish I had been reminded to bring Kleenex; the tears flowed freely.

In Without You, Rapp offers us a candid musical biography that is both heartfelt and heartbreaking. The show may be uneven and imperfect but in the end it’s a beautifully earnest, heartfelt and poignant meditation on love and loss with a powerful, uplifting, life-affirming message.

Details:

  • Without You is playing till January 6, 2013 at the Panasonic Theatre, (651 Yonge Street).
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $25 – $79. Day-of rush seats $20. Discounts for groups of 12 or more.
  • Tickets are available in person at any Mirvish theatre box office, by phone at 416-872-1212 or online at Mirvish.com.

Photo of Anthony Rapp