REVIEW: A Lin-Manuel Miranda-less “Freestyle Love Supreme”
What Broadway show can you see on a Monday night at 10pm?
“Freestyle Love Supreme”, which opened last night at the Booth Theatre for a limited run through January 5th.
In fact, there are two shows—7pm and 10pm—on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday evenings—an unorthodox schedule befitting an unorthodox Broadway show.
Despite the fact that the nearly sold-out audience has presumably self-selected by buying tickets and, by my count, at least a fourth of those in the orchestra raised their hands when prompted to share if they had seen “Freestyle Love Supreme” in a prior iteration, as the cast rather self-consciously exclaims multiple times in a prelude that goes on just a tad too long: “you may be wondering what this is”.
It’s a fair question since a “freestyle, improvisational, hip-hop comedy show” is not your typical Broadway fare. Just what “Freestyle Love Supreme” ends up being, though, is very familiar to anyone who has ever attended an improvisational comedy show where music is involved. Most likely, you were in college or at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
At every performance, a rotating roster of Freestyle Love Supreme members—backed by two keyboardists and a surprise guest(s)—solicit free form word and story suggestions from the audience based upon five separate prompts that become the basis for the group’s musical improv segments and the structure of the show.
1) a “mic check” prelude centered on a verb, 2) something we hate, 3) something we love, in which each performer tells a true, personal story about the subject, 4) “second chance”, in which an audience member shares a personal story about a life experience they regret, and the group reenacts it with a different ending, and 5) a day in the life, in which one audience member shares, in minute detail, what they did on the day of the performance, and the crew turns it into a hip-hop musical on the spot.
The group is the brainchild of Thomas Kail (who directs), Anthony Veneziale, and Lin-Manuel Miranda who founded it together in 2003 on the campus of Wesleyan University, and have shepherded performances over the ensuing 16 years, most recently at Ars Nova downtown last spring. Alumni include Wayne Brady, Daveed Diggs, James Monroe Iglehart, Christopher Jackson, and Bill Sherman, some of whom make surprise appearances in this version, along with newer members in training and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself.
At the Mr. Miranda-less performance I attended, “vomit” was rather hilariously selected as the anchor word of the mic check, and subsequently peppered throughout the balance of the show. We hated “humidity” and loved “The Muppets”. The “second chance” story to change was about a teenage car crash involving black ice that resulted in the death of a pig.
And our “day in the life” featured a man who works one-on-one with autistic clients popping around the city as he worked out, got his iPhone fixed, bought tickets to “Phantom”, watched some of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, ran into Lin-Manuel Miranda on the street, and grabbed a drink with a friend.
Within minutes of the mic check opening I was struck with déjà vu flashbacks to college and even high school where improv shows were staples of my campus culture.
None of those shows cost $179. In fact, I can’t recall one costing more than $5. But, to be fair, none featured the extraordinary talent of freestyle wordsmiths Anthony Veneziale, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, and Aneesa Folds, and beatboxers Kaila Mullady or Chris Sullivan (with guest artist Ashely Pérez Flanagan and Ian Weinberger and Arthur Lewis on keyboards at the performance I attended).
“Freestyle Love Supreme” is an abundantly joyful affair. “Love” is the second word in the group’s name for a reason, and it is pretty darn “supreme”, too. You’d be hard-pressed to find better freestyle rappers anywhere.
As with any improv show, there is an instant bond formed between the performers and audience, and the unshakeable sensation of appreciation for the fact that what we are seeing and creating together will only ever happen once. There’s also the chance that things can go horribly wrong, or else fall really flat. For the most part, the performance I attended was smooth, with only a few cringe-worthy moments. Still, through it all, you can’t help but autonomically root for the performers to succeed.
Lovers of wordplay will take great pleasure in the clever and witty rhymes that the crew, rather seamlessly, come up with on the spot. Their freestyle inventions are both fun and funny (enough), and casually dispense a socially conscious ethos. My audience booed Mitch McConnell, cheered Greta Thunberg, and were led to think about white privilege. The crew are also masters at the call back, making connections within and among segments of the show to weave gentle through lines that elevate the experience.
I enjoyed myself thoroughly, but still left the theatre after the 85-minute presentation slightly irked about what I just saw. I attended on comped tickets, but if I had spent the $179 that my seat cost, I would definitely have also emerged feeling empty. For what is essentially an improv comedy show, you can find equal, if not close, performances in New York at a much lower price point.
Unlike, say, “Derren Brown: Secret” (read my review), which draws audiences on the merits of its titular figure’s accomplishments, the main box office draw for “Freestyle Love Supreme” is the success of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” and the name of their and this show’s most famous creator who does not appear onstage or have a hand in any of the performance specifics—unless you happen to be at a performance where he is the guest artist, which, itself, is a marketing gimmick.
Cashing in on fame is nothing new—a good deal of the business of Broadway hinges on brand name ventures—but if the luster of a marquee name justifies a Broadway ticket price, the absence of that personality on stage glares. Reading other reviews from critics who attended performances with Mr. Miranda as the special guest, I get the FOMO-laden sense that my performance was a more middling version of what the evening can be.
For all its exceptional talent and well-appointed trappings (set by Beowulf Boritt, lighting by Jeff Croiter), “Freestyle Love Supreme” is a Broadway show that still feels like a club act, which might explain those performance times, or even a college show, which feels justified given its origins. If that’s your bag, you’ve got the cash, and you’re willing to roll the dice on getting a guest artist with star-quality, you’re sure to have a good time.
Bottom Line: “Freestyle Love Supreme” is an abundantly joyful and amusing freestyle, improvisational, hip-hop comedy show created by Thomas Kail, Anthony Veneziale, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. A pricey enterprise given that it is, fundamentally, an improv show, lovers of wordplay will take great pleasure in the clever and witty rhymes that the rotating cast of rappers and beatboxers come up with on the spot based on audience suggestions, and cynics will see a well-marketed cash grab.
“Freestyle Love Supreme”
222 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: October 2, 2019
Final Performance: January 5, 2020