For any theater fan catching Freestyle Love Supreme last weekend, it was like being a kid granted the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: At both Saturday and Sunday’s 10 p.m. performances of the show, a return engagement by the titular hip-hop improv group that Lin-Manuel Miranda co-founded years before Hamilton made him a cultural icon, who should turn up onstage but the multi-tasking multiple award winner himself.
OK, so maybe Miranda’s appearances weren’t total surprises. He is co-producer of FLS’s new series of shows, directed by his longtime buddy and Hamilton and In the Heights director Thomas Kail, and Miranda is on the roster of special guests expected to join the group’s current core lineup—featuring Utkarsh Ambudkar (a/k/a UTK the INC.), Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut), Chris Sullivan (Shockwave) and Anthony Veneziale (Two-Touch) with musicians Arthur Lewis (Arthur the Geniuses) and Bill Sherman (King Sherman)—periodically during the run. Also, critics were in attendance on both evenings, and no one of sound mind has ever questioned Miranda’s knack for publicity and promotion.
[Read Melissa Rose Bernardo’s ★★★★ review here.]
On Sunday, when I caught the show, the superstar was joined by James Monroe Iglehart, a current principal player in Hamilton and a Tony winner for Aladdin, and Hamilton associate musical director Ian Weinberger, who accompanied Lewis on keyboards. The presence of celebrated guests meant that Bancroft and Sherman had to be rotated out of the lineup for the performance, but predictably, no one in the crowd seemed to mind. Audience enthusiasm is vital to Freestyle, which solicits and relies on participation from attendees, who arrive to find slips of paper on their seats, urging them, “Write down a word to be used in the show!”
As Veneziale, acting as master of ceremonies, explained on Sunday, the show is a “totally made-up, on-the-spot, improvised thing.” The first batch of words culled at the performance included “fangirling,” “conceive,” and “impeach,” giving the guys some rich fodder for witty, naughty riffing. “Tuberculosis” and “pantylines” soon followed—in response to a request for something more irritating—with Sullivan’s expert beatboxing setting the groove as the others found comic inspiration in the provided material. When numerous audience members suggested “Trump,” Veneziale deadpanned, “You’re not the first audience members to say that.”
But the performance really took off once Veneziale began mining stories, prompting a man seated near the back to share a childhood memory of seeing two dogs doing what comes naturally, then expressing interest to a teacher in doing the same with her. In the sequence that followed, Miranda hilariously assumed the role of a very eager canine, with Iglehart—whose robust, mellifluous singing could serve as a sweetener amid the tart proceedings—stepping forward to play the prim instructor, a bit made all the funnier by the performer’s strapping, cherubic presence.
Another high point found Lewis leaving his keyboard and revealing his own gently soulful voice in a segment that became surprisingly personal, and moving, given the premise: physics. Ambudkar wound up describing his journey as the son of immigrant parents, while Iglehart recalled his struggles with dyslexia. Miranda referred, as he did several times throughout the evening, to his wife, who happens to be a scientist, and to his sub-par skills in that particular arena.
Miranda emerged, not surprisingly, as the most verbally adroit freestyler, exhibiting an often self-deprecating wit and a willingness to go with the goofy flow when inspiration was less forthcoming. But Ambudkar’s more relaxed, droll rapping, which made deft reference to his Indian-American identity (as Miranda’s did to his Puerto Rican heritage), could be equally impressive.
Veneziale, mock-dapper in a patterned shirt and bowler hat—Lisa Zinni’s costume design has the guys generally dressed down to reflect the form, with T-shirts and sweat gear prominent—could become a tad cute in sustaining the audience’s energy and inclusion. After inviting a man of a certain age onstage to talk about his activities that day, forming the basis of the final segment, the MC gushed—with that mix of glib effusiveness and irony that’s supposed to make anything funny these days—”Is this crazy?” To which the seasoned citizen responded, his voice as plain and dry as toast, “It’s not craaay-zy.”
Perhaps not. But Freestyle Love Supreme is, without question, an exuberant crowd-pleaser that’s sure to get your mind off whatever’s bothering you—if you’re lucky enough to score a ticket.