The M.O. at Broadway’s “Freestyle Love Supreme” may be the same as at any improv show — working from suggestions shouted out from the audience — but the members of this eponymous hip-hop ensemble up the ante by taking those audience cues and elevating them with rapid-fire raps, peppered with spoken-word riffs and wrapped in a musicality that would feel right at home at “Hamilton.”
No wonder. One of the show’s creators and producers is the multi-hyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, on the night this critic attended, appeared as one of the rotating roster of guests who will turn up during this limited engagement that is a mixture of improv, recess and a kind of “Whose Rap Is It Anyway?”
Watching Miranda in freeform mode, it’s clear to see that some of the roots of “Hamilton” were seeded with the collective he co-founded in 2003. While Miranda’s presence isn’t assured at every performance, other marquee-friendly guests at select performances will include Christopher Jackson, James Monroe Iglehart, Wayne Brady and Daveed Diggs.
Since each night’s show is almost entirely off-the-cuff — no doubt fortified by years of on-the-spot experience — performances vary in their wow factor, depending on the day, the dynamics of the group and, of course, the audience. That makes it the second Broadway show this month, following “Darren Brown: Secret,” in which crowd participation is a vital part of the evening.
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Steering the ever-morphing performance is Anthony Veneziale, the genial-with-a-slight-edge emcee who starts the show by asking the audience for an active verb. On the night “dribble” was chosen, you could almost hear the brain gears whirling as the troupe created loopy scenarios — everything from basketball to sloppy drool — propelled by the percussive sounds of beatbox master Chris Sullivan. Other riffs were inspired from shout-outs of “jalapeno,” “Brexit” and “living in New York City,” the latter featuring a terrific Aneesa Folds showing off her considerable vocal chops.
The ensemble attempts some long-form storytelling, too, using incidents from the lives of selected audience members. Some of these sequences prove more satisfying than others, but it’s always entertaining in watching the struggle, sweat and strain of the refrain. With the pulsating beat always driving them on, there’s no place to hide. But when everything falls into place, it’s sublime.
Some of the show’s best bits end up being non-rap quips. When an audience member, recalling a childhood incident, noted that there was no scarring after she bit her younger sister on the back, Miranda quipped, “You’re talking about it years later. Oh, there’s scarring.”
A master of staging super-charged ensembles, director Thomas Kail (also one of the show’s creators and producers — not to mention a Tony winner for “Hamilton”) is savvy enough to slow down the show’s barrage of words here for a more natural, intimate pace that can have a surprising emotional impact.
Making the show richer than typical improv feats is a segment in which three members of the group take an audience-suggested word (“meniscus,” at one show) and, with the added swoony vocalizations by onstage musician Arthur Lewis, make things more personal and real. Anecdotes ranged from the comic (a past-your-prime scissor kick that ended badly for Veneziale) to the sentimental (a paternal rap from Miranda, then expressions of marital grace from the recently-wed Utkarsh Ambudkar).
Also noteworthy is the fact that “Freestyle Love Supreme” is blissfully undisturbed by cell phones, since audience members are required to deposit their devices into sealed pouches which they hold onto until the show’s end. But then, no chiming ringtone could have stopped this energetic show.