Just when will Lin-Manuel Miranda show up for the Broadway performances of Freestyle Love Supreme? The teasing question is raised by the show itself, one of whose numbers noted drily the night this critic went that we’ll be pissed off when we realize he’s not showing up for this performance we are seated in.
Well, true and not true; sure, it would be nice to see the multi-hyphenate, all-media conquering star, but Freestyle Love Supreme—now at the Booth Theatre (through Jan. 5), after a sell-out run at the Greenwich House Theater in February—also barrels riotously along just fine without him.
Conceived by Anthony Veneziale and created by Thomas Kail, Miranda, and Veneziale, and directed by Kail, the rap-based show, first staged in 2004, predates Hamilton and In the Heights, the show which first brought Miranda to Broadway. The three shows share the same bite, originality, and absolute, winning, irresistible charm. Here, improvised hip-hop, song, and movement meet audience participation—and it’s a joy.
This is not annoying, intrusive, hide-under-the-seats participation. Via shouted-out audience suggestion, freestyle verse is made up on the spot by a group of performers who use singing, rapping, beat-boxing with harmonies and freestyle flow. They have a special guest for each performance, hence the when-will-Miranda-appear? mystery.
The night this critic saw it, James Monroe Iglehart joined the cast and was as smoothly brilliant and assured as the charming and be-hatted Veneziale (who leads the group and elicits material from the audience); the excellent Utkarsh Ambudkar, who has a fast, dry wit; Kaila Mullady, aka Kaiser Rözé; Chris Sullivan (aka Shockwave, who produces all kinds of sounds, like fireworks); the bouncily youthful Andrew Bancroft (aka Jelly Donut); Arthur Lewis (on keyboards, and also a fine singer); and Bill Sherman. Other special guests will include Wayne Brady, Daveed Diggs, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, and Christopher Jackson.
FLS is a brisk, extremely fun show, and began with us surrendering our phones which you keep but are locked in special pouches until show's end (even the most phone-dependent won't notice). The show began with a request for words, submitted via bucket before curtain up, and also from the audience—“eviscerate” was the favorite of the performers.
And yes, politics is never far away: “Trump” and “Mitch McConnell” and “impeach” were shouted from stalls and mezzanine too.
The audience is asked all kinds of things—for example to submit experiences they regret: ours ranged from a woman whose younger brother accidentally ate an overdose of vitamin supplements to the one the group decided to act out—the tale of a woman whose sister was electrocuted when putting up outdoor Christmas lights in the rain. This was spun into a tale of apocalypse, and then familial redemption.
As it was off-Broadway, the power of the performance and group’s openheartedness is really the guiding hand of Freestyle Love Supreme, watching the group right in front of us bond, chat, smile to each other as they make something up on the spot that is particularly good or particularly cheesy, or try and figure out how to configure details that we are giving them into stories and lyrics.
The night this critic saw it, ‘Clean Earth’ momentarily disabled the humor reflexes of two of the number, who instead spoke of their loved ones, of being parents, of the environment, of trying to safeguard a future for those that they loved.
The charming thing about the group is they are not absolutely, smoothly right on target all the time. They’re not precise and polished. It’s a pleasure to watch them wrestle with the artistic process in front of us, and make something so good up on the spot, but with all the roughened edges and pauses in place as the best path through an audience story is collectively untangled as the rap itself progresses.
In our show’s finale, a young fan from Los Angeles—who turned out to be not a special guest, but a random TV star, Iain Armitage (Young Sheldon, Big Little Lies)—went unrecognized (at least out loud) by the audience, as he regaled us with a tale of his day on the town, eating waffles and going to Central Park. This then became another delightful, bananas freestyle rap. Who knows if Freestyle Love Supreme will become as big as Hamilton; it’s certainly as winning.
This review is adapted from Tim Teeman’s original off-Broadway review.