It’s either a relief, cause for concern, or maybe a little bit of both — but when you get to Freestyle Love Supreme, the unique and delightful show blending hip-hop and improv, you’ll have to surrender your phone.
Even if the prospect of not being able to text, tweet, or take a ubiquitous Playbill photo seems odd, chances are you won’t think about it at all once things get going. You get a great night out, your smartphone gets an 80-minute nap in a secure pouch you keep with you during the show. Everybody wins, right?
First co-founded 15 years ago by Anthony Veneziale, Thomas Kail, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (pre-Hamilton and the god-knows-how-many other things currently on his dance card), Freestyle made a return Off Broadway earlier this year and is now happily at home at Broadway’s Booth Theatre. The trick of reviewing a show like Freestyle is that it changes every night, with different lineups, audience suggestions, and occasional guest stars. On Tuesday night, I saw Veneziale — who serves as the show’s host and jovial emcee — alongside Utkarsh Ambudkar and Aneesa Folds, with Chris Sullivan and Kaila Mullady offering up their substantial beatboxing talents. And at this particular performance, Miranda himself showed up as the special guest, getting an enthusiastic (and loud) welcome from the crowd before gamely diving into the night’s festivities. (Other special guests slated to show up over the run include Hamilton alums Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and James Monroe Iglehart.)
Freestyle Love Supreme has a cheery, communal vibe to it, with the audience being active participants in the cast’s impressive, on-the-spot crafting of songs and rhymes. Get to the venue early enough and you can write a word on a card and drop it in the bucket on stage for the performers to draw from as they freestyle. They’ll also ask the crowd to throw out a word and then build a number around it. (One example, extremely timely considering recent news events: “collusion.”)
One of the night’s best segments revolved around getting a story from an audience member about something in their life they wish they could do over. They then performed a heightened, absurd version of the original memory, followed by an alternate reality where things turned out differently. In this case, a #dark story — a man who, as a young boy, was forced to eat a cow he’d had as a childhood pet/friend, in his dad’s attempt to teach him about the circle of life — got even darker and weirder, with the boy (Ambudkar) becoming a murderous vigilante, poisoning carnivores with the encouragement of his vengeful-ghost animal pal (Miranda, quoting Sweeney Todd as the deceased bovine). In the redo, the cow urged the boy to high-tail it off their Texas farm, and they grew up happily together as vegans. In a different, more introspective segment, cast members shared what they said were true stories inspired by a word provided from the audience (somehow, “shiitake” gave way to memories about cooking with loved ones, childhood eating habits, and the growing bond between Ambudkar and his stepdaughter).
Unless someone else has a dead cow story up their sleeve, you won’t see that same scenario unfold. Nor will you get to hear Miranda tip his hat to In the Heights while pretending to be a woman commuting on the A train. But that’s a big part of the fun — seeing this smart, funny group of talented performers spin a story for you right there in the moment, from words that people around you shout toward the stage. In that sense, even if each show is different, you’re still getting lightning in a bottle every night. A-
Freestyle Love Supreme is running at the Booth Theater through Jan. 5.