'Freestyle Love Supreme': Theater Review

Freestyle Love Supreme Production Still 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Joan Marcus
Brilliant improv comedy, with a beat.

The improvisational hip-hop troupe co-founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda brings their linguistic wizardry to Broadway for a limited run, with guest spots from numerous 'Hamilton' alums.

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.

If you've ever marveled at the cleverness of an improvisational comedy troupe, you'll be even more amazed that Freestyle Love Supreme manages to infuse their bits with music, rapping, sound effects and percussion. The last two, by the way, are provided without the use of machines or instruments, although there are two keyboardists on hand for musical accompaniment.

The troupe is currently composed of Utkarsh Ambudkar (UTK the INC.), Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut), Arthur Lewis (Arthur the Geniuses), Chris Sullivan (Shockwave), Anthony Veneziale (Two Touch) and standbys Aneesa Folds and Kaila Mullady. Sullivan is the resident sound-effects specialist, while Veneziale is the genial MC who displays a remarkable rapport with the audience.

The show essentially follows the same structure as the troupe's off-Broadway engagement last winter, but since every performance is almost entirely improvised, your experience will be different each time. And this is definitely a show that rewards repeat viewings, if only to be amazed again by the endless ingenuity with which the performers devise their versatile routines.

In the opening segment, the audience is asked to shout out different verbs, one of which is selected by Veneziale for a series of freestyle riffs. At the reviewed performance, the word was "dribble," which easily lent itself to both basketball and liquid-related jokes.

At that point, Veneziale coyly announced, "Tonight, we added an MC," who turned out to be Miranda. The Hamilton creator hit the stage to rapturous audience response, and proceeded to demonstrate that his rapping skills have not gotten rusty with a rapid-fire series of verses inspired by randomly chosen words previously submitted by audience members.

"So that's what it's like inside Lin-Manuel Miranda's brain!" joked Veneziale after the virtuoso performance concluded.

There was no shortage of audience responses when asked to name things we hate. The winning replies were "Brexit," "living in New York" and "jalapeños," the latter providing the opportunity for Ambudkar (recently seen to drolly funny effect in the indie film Brittany Runs a Marathon) to deliver a running (pardon the pun) commentary on the unfortunate gastronomical effects that can result from eating that fiery pepper.

Asked to present an account of a real event they had experienced, an audience member told the story of how, when she was 3 years old, she bit her 1-year-old sister on the back during a fight over a Barbie doll. There was no scar, she assured the performers.

"If you remember this all these years later, there was a little scar," joked Miranda. The troupe then proceeded to musicalize the story, which somehow morphed into an outlandish saga involving cannibalism and a zombie army. They then offered a gentler variation providing a "second chance" and a diagnosis of hypoglycemia.

Keyboardist Lewis took center stage to participate in a soulful musical jam inspired by the suggested word "meniscus." "Everything you're about to hear is true," promised Veneziale, who proceeded to regale us with a freestyle musical rap about a knee injury he suffered while cycling. Miranda offered a musical account of the travails of raising his two toddlers, managing to be simultaneously touching and amusing in the process.

The final segment involved bringing an audience member onstage to recount what had happened to her that day. A Columbia University theater student talked about how she had attended class, hung out in a hotel lobby and read a book in Union Square. But the performers somehow managed to transform the mundane activities into a hilarious hip-hop musical featuring plenty of theater in-jokes.

Adding to the fun is that the performers seem to be having an absolutely terrific time themselves, frequently cracking up at their colleagues' bits. It wouldn't be quite accurate to say their delight proves infectious, because we're way ahead of them.

Venue: Booth Theater, New York
Cast: Utkarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, Aneesa Folds, Arthur Lewis, Kaila Mullady, 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, Jill Furman