Don’t let this major New York run, the first time Freestyle Love Supreme has been on stage in a while, fool you. The show, which opened at the Greenwich House Theater on Tuesday evening, might be seen as what ‘the Hamilton creators’ did next. But it isn’t. It’s what they did first.
Conceived by Anthony Veneziale and created by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel 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 bought Miranda to Broadway. The three shows share the same bite, originality, and absolute charm. Here, improvised hip-hop, song, and movement are made thrillingly universal through audience participation.
This is not annoying, intrusive, hide-under-the-seats participation either. Via 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. Their core number remains the same, and they have a special guest for each performance.
The night this critic saw it, Christopher Jackson (who originated the roles of Benny in In The Heights and George Washington in Hamilton) was the special guest, and 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 (and who wants his dad to own a show hoodie, if someone with spare cash can help), Chris Sullivan (Shockwave, who produces all kinds of sounds, like fireworks), Arthur Lewis (on keyboards, who also sang, the night this critic saw it, about the death of his mother), and Ian Weinberger (on the other keyboard, a guest musician).
Group member Andrew Bancroft rotated out for the special guest that day. Other special guests will include James Monroe Iglehart, Daveed Diggs, and Miranda himself; indeed, the day after it closes, there will be a special added benefit performance on March 3 to support Ars Nova that will feature Miranda. Ars Nova originally helped develop the show with producer Jill Furman.
FLS is a brisk, extremely funny 75-minutes, and began with us surrendering our phones which you keep but are locked in special Yondr pouches until show’s end (even the most phone-dependent won’t notice). Before the performance began we were asked to write down words that were in some way special to us. The group on stage found a way to rap about some of the chosen words. They did the same when asked for names of people suggested by us. (The name that got the biggest boo was Tom Brady.)
The group started riffing and rapping about the wife of a gentleman in the audience, and we all went “aww” when a woman said, “my mom.”
That produced the most moving moment of the performance, with Lewis singing “my mom” repeatedly as he thought about what if anything he could sing about his much-loved and missed mother, and then the other members of the group speaking and expressing their own feelings, and care and love for him, as part of the song. The genuine friendship between them was extremely clear, as they teared up while rapping.
The friend who was with me rightly indicated the power of the performance and group’s open-heartedness; that’s 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.
One unlucky woman shouted out an experience of falling head-first on the sidewalk on 6th Avenue on her birthday; this the group transformed into an epic tale of global destruction, then personal salvation.
The charming thing about the group is they are not absolutely, smoothly right on target all the time. They’re not a precise quartet. 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.
This was especially impressive when the group was faced with pallid source material. Asked for an experience from that day, one member of the audience, a female lawyer from Washington D.C., responded with a story about coming to New York City for the day with her husband and meeting up with friends.
Somehow Freestyle Love Supreme spun from this a way more interesting day—of overworking partners and excitable brunching buddies—than the anodyne source material suggested. Who knows if Freestyle Love Supreme will become as big as Hamilton; it’s certainly as winning.
Freestyle Love Supreme is at the Greenwich House Theater until March 2.