The Freestyle Love Supreme I saw on Broadway last week won’t be the Freestyle Love Supreme theatergoers see tonight or tomorrow or any other night in its limited, 16-week run. An energetic, insistently likable mash-up of rap, improvisational comedy, hip hop, R&B crooning and, crucially, audience participation, FLS – in its own shorthand – is both the show and the rotating troupe of performers who have been bringing it to unique life off and on, in various venues, since around 2003, now including the Booth Theatre, where it opens tonight.
If you’ve heard of it – or have seen it, and a significant percentage of the audience at the reviewed performance were repeat and clearly devoted attendees – you most likely associate FLS with its co-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, a link that strikes me as a for-better-and-worse proposition. But more about that shortly.
For the uninitiated, a description: Performed on any given night by a crew of five or six – including a special or featured guest – FLS utilizes the tried and true Second City technique of audience input to determine each performance’s improvised content. Instructing the audience to shout out, say, a regretted life experience, the performers will then improvise a segment based on the chosen suggestion, ensuring that each night’s show is unique.
But unlike Second City’s purely comic approach, FLS spins its improv with freestyle rap, on-the-spot song-making, dance, vocal sound effects and comedy. The outcome can be dizzying, a marvel of breakneck-speed, pulled-from-the-ether rhymes and well-told comic anecdotes, all directed with a touch that’s probably not as light as it seems by frequent Miranda collaborator Thomas Kail (In The Heights, Hamilton).
Conceived by Kail, Miranda and Anthony Veneziale more than 15 years ago and performed by an evolving roster of performers – including, at times, Miranda – at venues like Joe’s Pub and Off Broadway’s Greenwich House Theater, FLS has maintained its broad structure and several untitled routines that have been expertly fine-tuned for this long-in-coming Broadway debut. The routine I’ll call “Regrets” is a particular crowd-pleaser, as is an autobiographical segment in which each performer relates a true-life event tied to specific words shouted from the audience. In a fine show-ender, an audience member describes his or her day leading up to that night’s show, which the performers then re-tell in rhyme, rap and considerable teasing.
Since each performance is unique, spoiler warnings aren’t required for the following description of the reviewed performance. For the “Regrets” routine, the chosen audience member told of accidentally running over her basketball-playing brother’s foot with a car, providing details that the performers wove into a delightfully shaggy musical number, with just a dollop of Don Rickles-style barbs.
On the night I was there, the performers were Anthony Veneziale, our good-natured guide and chief audience liaison; MC and rhyme master Utkarsh Ambudkar; Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan, mouthing beats and other vocal sound effects; and the very funny Aneesa Folds as a featured rapper. Keyboard and back-up vocals were provided by Arthur Lewis and Ian Weinberger.
The special guest for the performance was Christopher Jackson, Hamilton‘s original George Washington, handling the bulk of FLS‘s traditional singing duties and more than keeping pace with his co-horts’ comic chops.
Do some of the bits run out of steam? Sure. Does the improv occasionally feel strained? Of course – doesn’t it always?
But if there’s a slight misstep in the production, it just might stem from FLS‘s longstanding and much-promoted association with Miranda, who, it’s been noted, might occasionally drop by for an impromptu performance. Other names floated as potential guests include the aforementioned Jackson, Wayne Brady and Daveed Diggs, among others. With friends like that – and with built-in fan bases intact – audiences might feel a little let-down when their favorite – Lin-cough-Manuel – doesn’t show. No serious matter – they’ll get over it soon enough, as the regular performers work their spells.
Still, as charming and entertaining as Freestyle Love Supreme is, no connection to Miranda, Kail or Diggs is going to transform it into the fully fledged triumphs of Hamilton or In The Heights. The production’s repeat customers know what to expect; newcomers and tourists might best imagine themselves back at one of those small venues where FLS was building its name, amazing audiences with its unexpected delights. Hamilton it’s not, but tickets are available.
Freestyle Love Supreme, produced by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jenny and Jon Steingart, and Jill Furman, opens tonight at Broadway’s Booth Theatre and runs through Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.