Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 2, 2019
Freestyle Love Supreme Conceived by Anthony Veneziale. Created by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Anthony Veneziale. Directed by Thomas Kail. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Lisa Zinni. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Music supervisors Arthur Lewis, Bill Sherman, and Chris Sullivan. Associate director Patrick Vassel. Cast: Anthony Veneziale, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aneesa Folds, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Sullivan, and Kaila Mullady.
The company with the same name as the show has been floating around at various venues in and out of New York for 15 years. It was the brainchild of Anthony Veneziale, who boasts a long résumé in improv, and was developed by him and a couple of individuals who are rather better known to Broadway theatergoers: Thomas Kail, who directs this production, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Both Kail and Miranda, collaborators on In the Heights and Hamilton, serve as producers for Freestyle Love Supreme. The enterprising, FLS also offers courses for adults and a summer youth camp for kids, of whom there were a fair number in the audience the night I attended.
Wrap your head around the interesting combo of hip-hop, Broadway musicals, and summer camp for a moment and you will understand that Freestyle Love Supreme is a far cry from any sort of "mean streets" rap to which it is a second cousin thrice removed. Except for the occasional F-bomb, which here seems to serve as a syllable-needed filler as much as anything, this is the soft rock version of the form. At the performance I saw (remember, this is improv, so what I got may not be what you will get), there were musical references to Grease, The Book of Mormon, The Sound of Music, and, naturally, Hamilton. While these tidbits were hardly on the same level as a Forbidden Broadway parody, they landed with the audience because they were spontaneous. They also show that, at its heart, Freestyle Love Supreme is aimed with love at the theater nerd in all of us.
So what will you get for your Broadway bucks? You will see a rotating cast of performers, a pair of very talented keyboardists, a series of skits that draws on suggestions from the audience, and often a surprise guest. Don't go with the expectation of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda, however; he was a guest performer the night I went, and he may or may not be there when you attend.
As a kind of warmup, you will be asked to shout out words, which the cast will attempt to incorporate into its first segment. "Jalapeños" led to an ongoing riff about a lingering upset stomach, while "meniscus" evolved into a very funny mini-musical. There are two other longer playlets after this. In one, an audience member is asked to talk about some specific thing they did in their life that they regretted. If you are that volunteer, know you will be pressed for details, which will then be turned into a self-contained little show of its own. In the final segment, another volunteer will be brought onstage to talk about how they spent the day before coming to the theater. Again, the company will use that information to extemporize a performance.
Freestyle Love Supreme is not the stuff of high drama, but it will give you a chance to see some very good improv work from a game and talented cast. I have no idea who will be on board when you attend, but I do want to give a shout-out to a very-funny Aneesa Folds, who dropped in a bit of Aqua's "Barbie Girl" and Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" into a sketch in which she played a two-year-old. To his credit, Lin-Manuel Miranda lowered his usually high-powered profile to fit in with the rest of the troupe; a rap he did about his two children was both sweet and funny. Also impressive was Chris ("Shockwave") Sullivan, a gifted beatbox artist who came up with some terrific percussive vocalizations. The keyboardists, Ian Weinberger and Arthur Lewis, did a great job accompanying the evening, with Mr. Lewis, a singer/songwriter and one of FSL founding members, joining the cast to lend his voice to one of the funnier skits.