Anthony Rapp's one-man show arrives at the Menier Chocolate Factory fresh from its European premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it was well received. Adapted from Rapp's New York Times best-selling memoir, Without You tells the story of the early days of what became the Broadway phenomenon Rent, from the perspective of this original cast member, complete with songs from the show as well as fresh music with Rapp's own lyrics, coolly performed by a five-piece rock band.
The theatre was clearly packed with Rent fans, but if they were looking for an insight into the rehearsal process and an intimate portrayal of writer Jonathan Larson that wasn't quite what they got. True, Rapp conjures some of the atmosphere of gay, bohemian Soho in the early 90s, but the narrative focuses mainly on Rapp himself: on what being part of the play, meeting Larson, and Larson's death meant for him.
Unfortunately, this autobiographical tribute to an innovative writer – and to this period in musical theatre – is tainted throughout by Rapp's staggering arrogance. I lost count of the number of times he impersonated an audience member/ friend/ agent telling him how wonderful he was and how moved they had been by his performance. As far as I could tell, the only purpose the peripheral characters served was to boost Rapp's ego. He acts out meeting Larson's parents when they arrive at the memorial performance of Rent for friends and family, just after their son's sudden death: "Oh, but of course we know who you are, Anthony," they say, grief-stricken but adoring nevertheless. Autobiographical one man shows run the risk of becoming self-involved, but Rapp's level of self-regard goes beyond the odd misjudged line.
Interwoven with the story of Larson's death on the eve of the show's off-Broadway premiere, is Rapp's relationship with his mother throughout that period, when she was dying from cancer as he was becoming a successful actor in New York. The parallel is intended to illuminate another aspect of the grief which is so present in a community learning to live with HIV/AIDS, but the detailed depiction of his mother's deterioration lacks emotional sophistication. Rapp seems to feel in terms of emotional cliché.
Leaving aside the egoism and psychobabble, Without You is a well-produced piece, and Rapp moves between music and monologue slickly, incorporating Rent's hit numbers and his own songs seamlessly into his account of the period. He has a brilliant voice, perfectly suited to Rent's rock opera songs – songs which he was the first to sing – and when he fills the auditorium with "Seasons of Love" at the play's end, it is electric. As someone uninitiated into the Rent/ Rapp fan base I can't say I was won over, but judging by the general audience response there is plenty here to keep fans entertained.