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A CurtainUp Review
Free Style Love Supreme
Be prepared for a phone-free theatrical experience. On entering the theater, an usher will hand you a Yodr pouch and ask you to place your cell phone inside it. This pre-show protocol, no worrries. It feeds right into the concept that relies on audience members to be a hundred percent present and willing to participate in the show. If you're a bit anxious, no worries. The pouch will be unsealed at the performance's end and your cell phone good to go.
If Hamilton is a love letter to Hip Hop, then Freestyle Love Supreme is its prelude. Conceived by Veneziale, and brought to birth by him, Kail, and Miranda in 2004. It's been presented Off Broadway at Joe's Pub and Ars Nova and touched down at Edinburgh and other prestigious international venues. The collective's name is a tribute to to "A Love Supreme," the John Coltrane jazz suite. The creative endeavor predates both Hamilton and In the Heights.
Here's its premise in brief: The troupe takes audience suggestions, and i collaborativelyn transforms them into turbo-charged, raps that make the English language dance in unexpected and off-beat rhymes. — For example, Aneesa Folds rhymed the country of Russia with that quotidian slang phrase "Stop your rushin'."
The core group consists of Utkarsh Ambudkar (aka UTK the Inc), Andrew Bancroft (aka Jelly Donut), Arthur Lewis (aka Arthur the Geniuses), Chris Sullivan (aka Shockwave), Anthony Veneziale (aka Two Touch), Aneesa Folds (aka Young Nees), and Kaila Mullady (aka Kaiser Roze) Folds and Mullady, the only females in he collective, are also standbys for Ambudkar and Sullivan, respectively.
The cast will be rotating during the 4 -month Broadway run. For each performance, one regular troupe member pulls out, and an unannounced cameo performer steps in. Some of the names who will become flesh-and-blood on the Booth stage are Wayne Brady, Daveed Diggs, Ashley Perez Flanagan, Bill Sherman, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself.
On the Sunday evening I attended, Veneziale, Ambudkar, Christopher Jackson (he played George Washington in the original cast of Hamilton and is presently a regular on the CBS courtroom drama Bull) was a substitute for Andrew Bancroft. Rounding out the cast were Aneesa Folds and James Monroe Iglehart (the original Genie in Alladin). And let's not forget the musicians on stage. Chris Sullivan plays percussion and Arthur Lewis and Ian Weinberger tickle the keyboards. Their music isn't flashy, but it punctuates the word passages with jazzy chords and staccato beats.
Freestyle Love Supreme may well be the most spontaneous musical ever to land on the Great White Way. Veneziale, who serves as a sort of emcee, mischievously asked the audience if they were surprised that the collective now had digs at the historic Booth Theatre. Several yesses floated up from the orchestra.
Part of thr proceedings involved using the words jotted down on index cards handed out to some "early bird" theatergoers. Some of these jottings — Impeach. . . . veto . . .eradicate — were turned into amusing raps.
What gives the show its stage legs is the amazing skill set of its core group and resourcefulness of its special guests. Each artist on stage is a virtuoso rapper and a wizard at improv and vocal stylings.
This isn't an introspective show. No group member attempts to persuade you that anything done on stage is IMPORTANT. What IS important, however, is the shared theatrical experience between the artists and audience members and finding truth in the moment.
If pressed to pick a favorite sequence, I would choose the one in which a critic (he introduced himself as Tim) was hauled out of his orchestra seat and prompted to describe his day to everybody. Not only did he ood-naturedly agree to recount his day's events, but proved himself to be quite a ham. But the real fun began when the troupe did their own spin. Yes, they got it right (sort of) and even nodded to his newly-minted Height of the Storm review by having a performer stand on a chair and attempt to gauge the physical height of the titular storm. Beyond this tomfoolery, Tim had a chance to do some male-bonding with special guest Christopher Jackson. It was a rare moment indeed to see a critic and an actor standing arm in arm on a Broadway stage. Who ever said that critics and actors were mortal enemies?
While other skits also landed their puns with aplomb, some missed and were too long-windedd. Ultimately what we have is really a series of oratorios derived from a single word, geographic locale, fantasy, or real-life experience with intoxicating hip-hop rhythms and rhymes.
Perhaps Free Style Love was best summed in co-founder Miranda in a recent interview: "There's nothing like live theater, and when it's being created in front of you, there's really nothing like it."
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Freestyle Love Supreme, created by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale
Directed by Thomas Kail
Cast: Anthony Veneziale (Mic 1), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Mic 2), Christopher Jackson (Mic 3), Aneesa Folds (Guest), James Monroe Iglehart (Guest).
Musicians: Chris Sullivan (Beats), Arthur Lewis/Ian Weinberger (Keys)
Set: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Costumes: Lisa Zinni
Sound: Nevin Steinberg
Music Supervisors: Arthur Lewis, Bill Sherman, and Chris Sullivan
Stage Manager: Cody Renard Richard
Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Tickets: $59-$199. Phone 212-239-6200 or online at www.telecharge.com. For information on the lottery for Freestyle Love Supreme, visit www.freestylelovesupreme.com/lottery
From 9/13/19; opening 10/02/19; closing 1/05/2020.
Running time: 85 minutes without intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on 7pm press performance of 9/29/19.
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