By Stanford Friedman
Most musicals have a beginning, a middle and an end. Then again, most musicals are not autobiographical pieces performed by its creator and sewn through with songs from a different musical. Anthony Rapp’s Without You has a middle, an end, and another end, because real life abhors structure. The show is lifted up by Rapp’s performance of hit songs from Jonathan Larson’s Rent. It captivates in the telling of Larson’s sudden death at the brink of Rent’s success. And it lingers, grieves and downshifts in the chronicling of the early death of Rapp’s mother. It’s a work that meditates on a heart aneurysm, cancer and the specter of AIDS, but finds joy in a son’s love and an actor’s big break.
Without You is based on Rapp’s 2006 memoir which he turned into a musical in time for The New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2010. Having landed now in the comfortable confines of New World Stages, under the direction of Steven Maler, the work covers just a short period of Rapp’s life, from 1994 and Rent’s first workshop performance, to his mother’s passing in 1997. Fans of his performance on Star Trek: Discovery or those curious about his child actor years will need to look elsewhere.
But Rentheads will find much to devour as Rapp relives his audition and the rehearsal process, sometimes assuming the voice of Larson himself, and performing favorites like “La Vie Bohème” and “No Day But Today.” There are also photos from the era, which he took, projected large on the stage walls. The evening’s most cathartic scene is the recreation of Rent’s opening night Off-Broadway, with Larson having succumbed to an aortic aneurysm the night prior. Rapp’s rendition here of “One Song Glory,” is dynamite.
If Larson’s life was tick, tick…boom, Rapp’s mom’s life was tick tick tick tick…silence. A lifelong resident of Joliet, Ill, she was the eldest of 13 children. But rather than exploring tales around that wild fact, Rapp focuses on their own relationship which, God bless him, is generally free from conflict and dramatic tension. She is never less than supportive and he is never less than compassionate. When her cancer strikes, it comes in a slow procession of tumors and surgeries, with her ultimately instructing her broken-hearted son, “That’s what hearts do. They break. But if you let them, they break open. Your heart is breaking open. You have to let that happen.”
And let it happen he does with a surprisingly explosive song of loss entitled, “That Is Not You,” sung at her deathbed. It’s one of several original numbers written by Rapp along with colleagues David Matos, Joe Pisapia and Daniel A. Weiss. The best of this batch is the winsome ode to his mother’s support, “Carry Me Home.” Less successful is the country-tinged “Wild Bill,” a misguided bit of anthropomorphism involving a tumor in the guise of a Western gunslinger.
At age 51, Rapp still belts with gusto, his familiar head voice only a shade raspier. Backed by a skilled five-piece band and sound designer Brian Ronan, the New World Stages former movie theater has rarely displayed such fine acoustics. They’re particularly appreciated in Rapp’s encore rendition of “Seasons of Love,” where his dual losses, separate entities for most of the night, suddenly merge in familiar lyrics made new: “How do you measure the life / Of a woman or a man? / In truths that she learned / Or in times that he cried / In bridges he burned / Or the way that she died.”
Anthony Rapp’s Without You – By Anthony Rapp, directed by Steven Maler.
WITH: Anthony Rapp
Eric Southern (Lighting and Scene Design), Angela Vesco (Costume Design), Brian Ronan (Sound Design), and David Bengali (Projection Design). Led by Daniel A. Weiss, the band includes Clérida Eltimé (Cello), Paul Gil (Bass), Jerry Marotta (Drums), and Lee Moretti (Guitar). New World Stages, 340 West 50th St., 212-239-6200, WithoutYouMusical.com. Through April 30. Running time: 90 minutes