WITHOUT YOU by Anthony Rapp (Menier Chocolate Factory/Mirvish). At the Panasonic (651 Yonge). To January 6. $45-$69, rush $29. 416-872-1212. See listing. Rating: NNN
Even those unfamiliar with the long-running musical Rent will enjoy Without You, original cast member Anthony Rapp's touching memoir about the show and his personal experiences of love and loss.
Rapp has two stories to tell, and while they're not equally fleshed out, they're both heartfelt.
First there's his big break of getting involved in Jonathan Larson's rock update of La Bohème about struggling East Village artists living in the age of AIDS. In his genial manner, complete with affectionate impressions of Larson and Rent director Michael Greif, Rapp takes us through the audition process, the callbacks, the workshop production and, eventually, the successful off-Broadway run and historic Broadway transfer.
Right before the off-Broadway previews, however, Larson dies mysteriously, leaving the team with a big gap. Will the show still go on? Yes, and Rapp shows us the journey, from singing songs about dying young that suddenly resonate with more meaning (there's a generous sampling of Rent tunes) to tearfully meeting Larson's parents.
At the same time as his career is taking off, Rapp's dealing with his Midwestern mother's cancer diagnosis and decline. Throughout the show he shuttles between the two worlds: the exciting creation of a musical that confronts sex, drugs and HIV head-on, and the quieter one where his mother, a nurse, tends to talk around uncomfortable things rather than deal with them.
Unfortunately, the two halves don't always come together, and Rapp's original songs, even backed by a strong five-piece band, suffer in comparison to the familiar ones from the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.
But Rapp, charismatic and full of energy, holds our attention and hearts for much of the 80-minute show.