A Critic Who Doesn't Like Hip-Hop or Improv Reviews Freestyle Love Supreme on Broadway
And he discovers a superstar in the making.
I don't particularly care for hip-hop, and I really, truly despise improv. My dislike of the former isn't tied to anything specific; my intense hatred of the latter comes from having seen too many of my friends strike out at Upright Citizens Brigade through the years. I'm not the target demographic for Freestyle Love Supreme on Broadway at the Booth Theater, and I'm keenly aware of that. But I also know a crowd-pleasing hit when I see one. Despite thinking there are too many variables to really earn its top ticket price of $179, I feel safe to say that this show is going to be a big, fat hit.
Created in 2004 by director Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and longtime MC Anthony Veneziale, the group Freestyle Love Supreme, making its Broadway debut in this self-titled show, serves up completely extemporaneous songs based on audience suggestions. There's a roster of regulars who join Veneziale night to night, as well as a rotating lineup of cameo artists who drop in unexpectedly. Some lucky audiences may get to see Miranda himself; others could see Tony nominee Christopher Jackson or Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart; still others might see none of the above at all. The production prizes the ephemeral nature of theater, requiring all audience members to lock away their phones, Fitbits, and anything that lights up in special pouches for the duration of the experience.
In a way, it's almost like playing roulette. The success of Freestyle Love Supreme lives and dies by the crowdsourced suggestions and how well these artists incorporate them into their off-the-cuff material. At the performance I attended, the results were firmly B-level, but still better than most of the improv shows I was subjected to in my early 20s. It's a testament to the cast I saw — longtime Freestyle vets Veneziale ("Two Touch"), Jackson ("C-Jack"), Utkarsh Ambudkar ("UTK the INC."), keyboardists Arthur Lewis ("Arthur the Geniuses") and Ian Weinberger, beatboxer Chris Sullivan ("Shockwave"), and newcomer Aneesa Folds ("Young Nees") — that they managed to make so many mundane things amusing for so long. I never thought 10 minutes on matcha tea could be so entertaining.
Yet it could have been a lot funnier, a lot smarter, and a lot tighter than it was, particularly a climactic sequence where they turn someone's day into a "mini-musical." On my night, they chose a woman who had flown to New York that day to see the show, was annoyed by a neighboring two-year-old on the plane, and then went to a bar she didn't remember the name of. It went on forever, and served as a wholly underwhelming grand finale. It's not a good way to send you off into the night, and I wish director Kail would reexamine the structure of the 80-minute evening to find a more awe-inspiring ending. (It didn't matter to the crowd, which was on its feet before the lights even rose for curtain call.)
There's no question that these seven players have charisma to spare, and they're far better at this than I would be, that's for sure. By and large, though, I've seen more dexterous freestylers hocking their wares on subway cars and street corners. Perhaps I went on an off night, but the only Freestyle member who I thought truly transcended "just OK"-ness was Folds, who was discovered in the troupe's freestyle school and was wisely invited to join the Broadway run. Her mind works in stealthy and exciting ways, and she's a soon-to-be superstar. I may not like improv, but I know talent when I see it. Aneesa Folds is the real deal, and you better remember her name.