I texted multiple friends after leaving Nomadic Theatre’s Rent that it was the most expensive-looking student production I’d ever seen. Nomadic Theatre is one of Georgetown’s premier student-run theater groups, placing a particular emphasis on “technically ambitious and socially engaged” productions — and I can’t imagine a better musical for achieving both goals than Rent. Under Director Olivia Martin’s leadership, Nomadic Theatre brought its A-game to this show, with visuals and individual performances that paralleled what I saw in the 25th-anniversary farewell tour production of Rent at the National Theatre in March.
Will Hammond shines as central character Mark Cohen, emphasizing a friendly, bouncy buoyancy that he tempers pitch-perfectly as the character’s ever-present optimism is injected with nuance over the course of the show. Bella Carlucci’s acting also impresses as Mimi Marquez, delivering her lines with an uncanny fluidity and physicality that precisely matches the image we have of Mimi’s character as played by the likes of Renée Elise Goldberry, Vanessa Hudgens, and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Caitlin Frazier gives a collected, fluid performance as Joanne Jefferson that superbly conveys the character’s groundedness in contrast to the rest of the cast’s (especially Maureen’s) come-hell-or-high-water bohemian idealism. And unforgettably, Caroline Slater’s Maureen Johnson dazzles, with Broadway-quality vocals, stunning poise, and certainty of movement on stage that parallels the Maureen I saw at the National Theatre.
And of course, Eddie Ramirez’s star power as the radiant Angel Dumott Schunard is undeniable. Ramirez executes Lily Geiser’s original choreography with assured gusto. I was worried that because this was a student production and I bet Georgetown theater has liability concerns up the wazoo, they might cut the trademark Rent dancing-on-tables. They did not.
The live score, led by Music Directors Owen Posnett and Jaron Berman, is one of the show’s strongest elements. Posnett’s ability to play high-energy show tunes on piano for two and a half hours at cast recording quality never fails to amaze. I am so glad that the set design put this band front and center under the fire escape setpieces so we could watch them at work.
The costume work by Costume Designer Lily Brown was impeccable — the cast’s costumes felt appropriately worn and shabby for the struggling characters, with color choices and fashion styles perfectly matched to each character. I want Maureen’s wardrobe. The visuals provided by the costumes, combined with the extensive and immersive scenic art provided by Sophia Monsalvo — gigantic panels on all open walls of the theater covered in a beautiful salad of spray-painted strokes and graffitied Rent mantras like “No Day But Today” — thrust color and energy upon the black box theater and the show’s grim narrative. The graffiti murals and trademark Rent Christmas lights created a visually satisfying juxtaposition with the rigid fire-escape metal structures comprising the rest of the set — again, providing that needed narrative juxtaposition. Adriane Longhurst’s intricate lighting design dazzled, sending vivid colors swirling around the set. I often found my mouth slightly agape at the spectacle. The firework display of color from the costumes, lighting, and set design marvelously conveyed Rent’s central ethos: chaos can be beautiful.
Only a few elements reminded me that this was a student production. First, many of the cast members had their stage headset microphones visibly Scotch-taped to the sides of their heads, which may have been a last-minute save when microphones weren’t staying put. If that is the case, I applaud the crew’s practical ingenuity (the sound was seamless). I have limited theater experience, but I bet that some good old prosthetic spirit gum (I use it for hobbit ears at cons) might do the trick to secure the mics. Second, some of the singing was on the weaker side. Jonathan Larson’s beloved score involves a good deal of precision-demanding complex rhythms and cacophonous melodies to narratively convey the characters’ challenges, and it is hard for anyone who isn’t a Broadway performer or singer for a living to execute them successfully. A bit more choral practice for the cast would do significant work to elevate the production as a whole. Also on the subject of the music: there were moments of uncertainty in the band’s performance. The synthesizer, an important element of “Seasons of Love” and iconic motifs throughout the show, was occasionally played too meekly. There were some songs, several backing Roger’s (Jack Kealey) vocals, where the guitarists seemed unsure of the rhythms, but this should be an easy fix.
It is important to remember that this show was put on by full-time students, not seasoned professionals who had more than a couple of months to put an entire production of one of America’s most popular megamusicals together in person.
Georgetown University’s theater programs are renowned and enormously successful for a reason. The students’ clear adoration for the material shines through in every student show I attend. Last week I saw Georgetown students put on a full unabridged performance of a Shakespeare play, the script of which I guess they memorized in their spare time. These students spend massive swaths of their precious time making these shows the very best they can be, and their monumental efforts and love for their work shine as brightly as I’ve ever seen them in Nomadic Theatre’s Rent.
If you’re able to make it to a Georgetown theater show — maybe not this one, given it’s sold out, but rush tickets at the door are often available, so take the risk if you can — I can’t encourage you enough to make it down here to the Hilltop.
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Rent plays through November 19, 2022, presented by Georgetown’s Nomadic Theatre performing at Village C Theatre, Georgetown University, 37th Street NW, Old N Way, Washington, DC. Tickets (free) are sold out online, but some rush tickets are available at the door before each performance.
The program for Rent is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are not required.