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BWW Review: Fast and Funny Rap Improv FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME Hits Broadway

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A couple of seasons ago, a Saturday Night Live Family Feud sketch had Lin-Manuel Miranda (played by Cecily Strong) introduced by Kenan Thompson's Steve Harvey as "the number one rapper on PBS."

BWW Review: Fast and Funny Rap Improv FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME Hits Broadway
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Utkarsh Ambudkar,
Anthony Veneziale, Chris Sullivan and Aneesa Folds
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

If nothing else, Miranda's success in musical theatre has stimulated interest in the art form from a new audience that, at a recent performance of Freestyle Love Supreme, laughed at a subtle reference to Broadway's THE BOOK OF MORMON and heartily applauded a not-so-subtle sampling from HAMILTON.

With its moniker giving a nod to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," the fast and funny improv hip-hop show created by Miranda, Tommy Kail and Anthony Veneziale started playing gigs around town way back during Broadway's pre-rap era, leading to an Off-Broadway production last season that has more or less transferred to the Booth Theatre.

"More or less" because even though the structure of the 80-minute jaunt, directed by Kail, is the same, the material, based on audience suggestions is freshly created every night. The only part that doesn't bounce off an audience response comes at the very beginning when four voices announce a "mic check" and standard phrases like "mic one check" and "this is microphone two" get extended into a frenetic off-the-cuff mixture of words, rhythms and beats.

Veneziale (a/k/a Two Touch), emcees the festivities with upbeat game show host charisma, with company members rotating performances. This reviewer saw Chris Sullivan (Shockwave), who specializes in providing a remarkable assortment of beats and sound effects, the quick-witted Utkarsh Ambudkar (UTK the INC.) and the very funny Aneesa Folds (Young Ness) who sports a terrific high-belting singing voice.

Kaila Mullady (Kaiser Roze), a graduate from the company's educational outlet, Freestyle Love Supreme Academy, came on for a sound effect duet with Sullivan, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself (Lin-Man) was the surprise guest ensemble member. Other unannounced guest stars include Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, James Monroe Iglehart and whoever else might be able to survive the spot's "Lighting Round" requirement; a rap solo improvising on a quick succession of words contributed by the earliest-arriving audience members.

Instrumentalists Arthur Lewis (Arthur the Geniuses) and Bill Sherman (King Sherman) are at keyboards and beats, though Ian Weinberger (Berger Time) was filling in for the latter.

Though not political in nature, the attitude of the evening naturally leans towards the progressive side. When Veneziale asked patrons to call out a verb, he gave examples like "vote... suppress... impeach..." ("Dribble" was the chosen suggestion, leading to a wild riff full of references to both basketball and needing to wipe one's mouth.)

BWW Review: Fast and Funny Rap Improv FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME Hits Broadway
Anthony Veneziale, Lin-Manuel Miranda,
Arthur Lewis, Utkarsh Ambudkar,
and Chris Sullivan (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In another bit, "jalapeños" had Ambudkar bending over in pain to describe some unsavory gastronomical effects, while "living in New York" prompted Folds to complain, "I'm walking on the street and what do you know / Some dude's asking if I want to see a comedy show..."

A request for something in your past that you regret led to a mezzanine occupant describing the time when she was three when she bit her one-year-old sister, leading to an extended scene dramatizing the event, and then twisting it around to see how the world might have changed if she didn't do the deed.

For the grand finale, an audience member is invited on stage (One announced caveat was that you cannot be a theatre critic. Apparently, that happened at a press performance.) to simply describe their day from the moment they woke up to arriving at the theatre. This particular performance's participant was a Columbia Student who attended a class on Directing For Stage Managers (where she learned that actors respond well to praise) before going to a hotel lobby to use the free WiFi and meeting a pair of Mormon friends for drinks (non-alcoholic for them). The company then presented her words as a one-act rapped play, pouncing on every detail for its humorous potential.

Watching someone churn out rhyming verse solo is impressive enough, but these extended sequences really bring out the teamwork and trust involved. It's a joy to watch them feed off of each other so effectively you'd swear there was mind-reading involved.

And, because everyone's cell phone is required to be kept in a locked pouch upon entering the auditorium (you take it with you to your seat) there's the added pleasure of not being disrupted by ringing or texting throughout the performance.

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From This Author Michael Dale