Someone once pointed out that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels. A similar thought comes to mind while watching Freestyle Love Supreme, the improvisational hip-hop group conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale. This wondrous collective delivers hilarious improvisational comedy, only in rhyme and with music.
The troupe is currently composed of Utkarsh Ambudkar (UTK the INC.), Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut), sound effects specialist Chris Sullivan (Shockwave) and Veneziale (Two Touch), with Arthur Lewis (Arthur the Geniuses) and Bill Sherman (King Sherman) providing musical support on keyboards and beats. (Ian Weinberger filled in for Sherman on the press night.)
At each performance, one of the regular players drops out, replaced by a different member of a rotating cast of guest stars. Among the names being tantalizingly dangled are Miranda, Daveed Diggs and James Monroe Iglehart. The ringer at the reviewed performance was Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in the original cast of Hamilton and is currently a regular on the CBS procedural Bull.
Freestyle Love Supreme operate in a very similar manner to traditional improvisational comedy troupes, working with suggestions supplied by the audience. But their ability to transform those suggestions into complex, rapid-fire rapping, spoken-word passages and full-blown musical numbers is simply mind-blowing. Their brains seem to be operating in another dimension entirely, leaving the rest of us in the dust. You get the feeling even Robin Williams wouldn’t have been able to keep up.
Each performance is almost entirely improvised, meaning that your experience will necessarily be different. The suggestions requested of the audience are of the usual improv variety, such as a verb, or a real-life or imaginary locale.
For the former, the troupe riffed on the verb “celebrate,” weaving a complex verbal and musical tapestry that included a snippet of the Kool and the Gang song of the same name. For the latter, someone in the crowd yelled out “Wakanda,” the fictional African country in Black Panther. “We will take Wakanda!” said Veneziale, clearly excited by the possibilities. He, and a good portion of the audience, were less thrilled by an answer to a request for a celebrity name: “Tom Brady,” someone shouted, to loud boos. When someone else suggested “my wife,” the group seized on it, launching into a hilarious routine about “that dude’s wife.”
Before the performance, the audience was invited to write words on index cards and drop them into a bucket near the stage. Jackson handled the freestyle rapping that ensued, deftly incorporating the random words into a freewheeling narrative.
I would like to have offered some quotes from the show, but the performers were speaking faster than I could scribble down their words. But the verses were filled with amusing one-liners, such as this throwaway reference to Jeff Bezos: “He’s a billionaire at least we can stand.”
When the audience was asked to offer an account of an actual event they had experienced, a woman described falling flat on her face while walking down 6th Avenue with her cousin and young nephew. The anecdote provided the inspiration for a hilarious sketch reenacting the incident, which somehow managed to end with the main character getting launched into space.
Although it’s a comedy show, the highlight on press night was quite emotional. The segment was inspired by the question, “Who could you not have done without?” “My mom,” someone replied. The answer provided the cue for Lewis to step out from behind his keyboard and movingly sing about the recent death of his mother, followed by the other performers delivering touching, rhyming accounts of their own mothers, including a lengthy autobiographical freestyle rap by Jackson.
Directed by Kail — a Tony winner for Hamilton and an Emmy winner for Grease Live!, currently at work on the upcoming FX series Fosse/Verdon — the show proves fast, furious, funny and wildly entertaining. It is also blissfully free from distractions, since audience members are required to deposit their cellphones in sealed pouches upon entering the auditorium. The minor hassle was easily offset by the opportunity to concentrate fully on the performers, whose amazingly quick-thinking deserves nothing less.
Venue: Greenwich House Theater, New York
Cast: Uktarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, Arthur Lewis, Bill Sherman, Chris Sullivan, Anthony Veneziale
Director: Thomas Kail
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Lisa Zinni
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Presented by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jenny & Jon Steingart and Jill Furman