Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Special to TorSun
18 DEC 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Anthony Rapp

Generals who had led victorious armies for ancient Rome were accorded triumphs — the opportunity to lead a celebratory military parade through the streets of Rome. But during that parade, the successful general had to be accompanied in his chariot by a slave who would constantly whisper in his ear: "Memento mori!" (You will die!)

Actor/playwright Anthony Rapp's victories have admittedly been more of a theatrical nature than military, but he's known his share of triumph nonetheless as one of the principal players in the rock musical Rent. But as he celebrated that success in the streets of New York, he had no need of a slave to remind him of his own mortality, for life, it seems, was doing a pretty good job of bringing him down to earth, even while his career was beginning to soar.

His personal Memento Mori is recalled in WITHOUT YOU, a one-man show, written and performed by Rapp and produced by the Menier Chocolate Factory, that opened Sunday on the stage of the Panasonic Theatre — and while it's certainly not your traditional festive fare, it does rate a look-see for several reasons. First, there is the story it tells — a two-barrelled tragedy that starts with his first audition for playwright Jonathan Larson, the man whose much publicized sudden death almost 17 years ago on the eve of the off-Broadway opening of Rent became the stuff of theatrical legend, as Larson's modern take on the opera La Bohème, soared from posthumous triumph to triumph.

From there, it follows Rapp on his own personal roller-coaster, as Rent's many triumphs are almost always perfectly paired with with bulletins from hometown Illinois, where his beloved mother is staging an ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer.

Interspersed as it is with some of the more enduring songs from Rent and with Rapp's own lyrics, set to the compositions of others, WITHOUT YOU walks an emotional tightrope, dealing effectively with the sentimentality of the stories he's telling without tipping too often into the mawkish. Backed by a tight ensemble, Rapp is not, it must be stated, a great singer, but he knows how to act the part of one, which proves to be just about as effective, and, under the direction of Steven Maler, he offers up a performance filled with that same warm, no-nonsense personality that marked his performance as Rent's Mark.

And perhaps that's the reason his show, while touching, stops short of being a complete success. While WITHOUT YOU flirts almost constantly with being too personal, it remains oddly impersonal as well. Characters, even the ones that are pivotal to his tale, emerge not so much as characters that Rapp is channelling, but as caricatures, dropping in for a guest appearance in a story that seems to be as much about Mark as Anthony. Still, against considerable odds, it emerges as far more of a celebration of life than of death — and, at this time of year, that's no small accomplishment.

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