Improvisational theatre and comedy are long-standing New York traditions. I’ve always held in high esteem artists who create performance sequences, let alone entire shows, with little prepped content. The fiendish difficulty of coming up with material spontaneously is exacerbated by the need for a good show to have some semblance of pace and structure.
Now imagine adding not only a musical, but also a hip-hop element to it. That’s freestyle love supreme, taking the crown for the most ambitious “yes-and” in town, currently running a limited engagement at the Booth Theatre following a sold-out downtown production raved by audience and critic alike.
Co-conceived by the incomparable Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale, freestyle love supreme follows improvisational theatre custom by drawing material from its audience, which its animated troupe of performers immediately spin into fully-realized rapped and sung numbers. To this effect, all audience members have their phones locked in a Yondr pouch upon entering the theatre, for maximum engagement, and minimum LuPone. What follows is a seamlessly structured sequence of numbers with building complexity. From a few key words sourced for a quick freestyle to audience anecdotes being turned into mini-operas, freestyle love supreme pushes the boundaries of both improv and music.
At the heart of this delightful vichyssoise is the troupe. On Mic 1 is ringmaster and co-creator Anthony Veneziale, charismatic and perpetually on the ball. Mic 2’s Utkarsh Ambudkar deftly brandishes a bottomless arsenal of rhymes in perfect cadence. Guest performer Christopher Jackson’s soulful vocals added a profound color to the rap’s outlines., whilst Aneesa Folds’s (of the prestigious "Freestyle Academy") impeccable sense of humor is rivaled by her thunderous intensity on a heavy beat. On instruments, Arthur Lewis and Ian Weinberger effortlessly undertake the daunting task of keeping up with the vocalists. And Chris Sullivan is an astonishing beatboxer whose vocal mechanics are capable of carrying a show on their own.
The freestyle numbers, though comedic in nature, were often made topical. Words randomly drawn in the beginning like “eradicate” and “veto” inevitably spawned one or two raps about current political events. A sequence I can only call “Second Chance,” intended to give an audience anecdote a happier ending, ends up with a little harmless didacticism based on the audience member’s decisions. More profoundly, a later sequence involved the rappers sharing heartfelt personal anecdotes, touching on themes of self-reflection and institutional racism, which were drawn (and digressed), quite amusingly, from the word “Russia”.
However, though the audience engagement is a key feature of freestyle love supreme, it can also be its liability. There’s always the risk of the audience’s base material being hopelessly mundane (especially when extensive accounts are required), despite the best efforts of the performers to spin something of it in the segment. Depending on the night, this can make for some less-than-memorable moments, to no fault of any in the cast, but of the genre’s inherent quirks.
Ultimately, though, freestyle love supreme is here to spread love and positivity and, packed into a healthy 80 minutes, they are a supremely entertaining avenue for it.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"And just as you were thinking that life has no rhyme nor reason these days, along comes Freestyle Love Supreme to pump you full of hope. This exultant master course in the fine art of hip-hop, which opened on Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, suggests that there’s no feeling, thought or experience so anxious or so random that it can’t be translated into infectious, neon-bright rhythms. Confusion, frustration, depression — such emotions are banished by the team assembled on the stage to find the great, sick beat in your past and present woes."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Freestyle Love Supreme is a dream of a show: the scheme of a team of thespians from Wesleyan who went with their flow, 16 years ago, to improvise a hip-hop musical. Their act is virtuoso. FLS is a phenomenon, uncommon and on-the-fly—a high wire where performers get by without a guide for the words that pour out from their lips and their lungs (as they try not to trip on the tips of their tongues). Their abilities, their skill and ease, are always impressive, but it’s less of a show-off than a love-in with a geek streak. There’s a reason FLS is so buzzy: It’s not just cool, it’s also warm and fuzzy."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"With In The Heights and Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has singlehandedly inspired a youth movement on Broadway. Incorporating rap and hip-hop in shows nowadays is what's poppin, as they say. But you ain't seen nothin' yet. Along comes Freestyle Love Supreme, and Lin-Man is breaking ground yet again."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Here's how talented the members of the improvisational hip-hop troupe Freestyle Love Supreme are. At a recent preview performance of their debut Broadway run, the special guest was Lin-Manuel Miranda. And he wasn't even the most impressive performer onstage. Miranda, who co-founded the troupe 15 years ago with director Thomas Kail (Hamilton, FX's Fosse/Verdon) and current member Anthony Veneziale, is but one of several "spontaneous guests" promised for select performances during the limited run, including such fellow Hamilton alumni as Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Wayne Brady and James Monroe Iglehart. But even if you don't get to see one of those well-known figures, don't worry. This inventive, fast-paced show doesn't need ringers to be wildly entertaining."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"The M.O. at Broadway’s Freestyle Love Supreme may be the same as at any improv show — working from suggestions shouted out from the audience — but the members of this eponymous hip-hop ensemble up the ante by taking those audience cues and elevating them with rapid-fire raps, peppered with spoken-word riffs and wrapped in a musicality that would feel right at home at Hamilton."
Frank Rizzo for Variety