Composer Jonathan Larson began writing the hit rock opera Rent, based on Puccini's La Bohème, in the late 1980s. Finally debuting at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1994, the show eventually opened off-Broadway in 1996, only for Larson to die tragically from an undiagnosed heart condition in the early hours of the show's first scheduled preview performance.
Rent went on to achieve massive critical acclaim, with runs on Broadway and in the West End, and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Larson. And it launched the career of the previously unknown Anthony Rapp. In Without You, based on his New York Times best-selling memoir, Rapp parallels the devastating loss of Larson with the decline and subsequent death of his mother, the two prime cataclysmic moments in his life.
Skilfully combining music from REM and Rent with original music and a storyline spanning his early life in Joliet, being cast as Mark Cohen, to the loss of his mother, Rapp takes us on an emotional journey of joy and grief, love and loss, and ultimately, the triumph of hope and the human spirit. It's a theatrical tour-de-force, beautifully sung with sincerity and depth. Rapp manages to portray the other characters in his story with conviction, particularly during difficult conversations with his mother towards the end of her life and his discussions with a counsellor about dealing with pain and grief.
The five-piece rock band led by Daniel A Weiss is magnificent (though in the rock numbers wince-inducingly loud), providing the ideal soundtrack to Rapp's life of major highs and turbulent lows. The set design (by Timothy Bird and Ellan Parry) is sparse, just a few chairs and a couple of tables to represent Rapp's apartment, his mother's house, the rehearsal space, the theatre. It's enough, with Rapp's performance perfectly conveying the sense of place within the story.
Director Steven Maler shows a sure hand in moulding a performance that avoids the self-indulgence that could easily envelop a self-written, self-performed autobiographical piece. As a result, Without You succeeds in resonating with its audience, echoing as it does the losses we all face, as well as the triumphs.