The cast of Freestyle Love Supreme at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater includes (from left) Chris Sullivan (Shockwave), Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut), Jay C. Ellis (Jellis J), Kaila Mullady (Kaiser Rözé), Morgan Reilly (Hummingbird), Aneesa Folds (Young Nees) and Anthony Veneziale (Two Touch). BELOW: Freestyling with (from left) Bancroft, Ellis, Folds and Veneziale. Photos by Kevin Berne
Wednesday night at the Geary Theater was one those nights theater lovers had been waiting for: the re-opening of American Conservatory Theater’s glorious home. We thought such an occasion would happen post-pandemic, but as that “post” era seems ever elusive, we’ll take what vaccinations and masks will allow.
And what they allow at this moment in the gorgeous Geary is exceptionally enjoyable. Freestyle Love Supreme is not a new show (its roots go back to 2004), but among its creators – Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale (who originally conceived the project) – are Broadway superstars. Miranda is, well, Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights, Encanto and a million things he’s already done) and Kail is the Tony-winning director of Hamilton. So this improv hip-hop side project garnered a lot of attention and eventually found life on Broadway and many other places.
The most recent Broadway iteration of FLS kicks off its national tour at the Geary, and though this 90-ish-minute blast of high-energy theatrics would be a giddy delight on any given night, its arrival during our most recent surge feels especially fortuitous. It’s a bountiful serving of inventive fun when we needed it most.
The concept is just like any improv show: the performers will create entirely original work based on suggestions from the audience. In this case, the stakes are raised by the performers having to freestyle rap with the help of two keyboardists and two beatboxers to control melody and rhythm. So the performers are rapping, singing and acting all at the same time, which is quite the high-wire act.
Happily, this crew, which can vary from night to night with special guests, knows how to spit rhymes (as they say), get laughs, connect with deeper emotions and offer high-velocity entertainment. Veneziale serves as the de facto host as the well-crafted but just loose enough structure keeps the show moving from segment to segment without feeling constrictive.
In true improv fashion, audience members are called upon to supply raw material like verbs, things they intensely dislike, things they love and, twice during the show, more involved things like a painful memory you wish you could do over or how you spent your day. Of course the masks muffled the suggestions somewhat, but everybody who wanted to be heard was heard (from the balcony in response to things you couldn’t live without: the word “the”).
At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, the verbs included litigate, catapult, masturbate and fondle. The crew chose litigate to expound upon, but they managed to get most of the other words in there as well. Among the things that were working the audience’s last nerves were Joe Manchin, Covid, the My Pillow guy, Wordle, “my vegan girlfriend” and “too much mayonnaise.” In a 21st-century pandemic twist, audience members can scan a QR code in the program and submit words for a fast round of improv rapping as the words are pulled at random from a bucket.
There are three more involved segments of the evening, all of which verged on brilliant on opening night. Recalling a childhood memory, an audience member named Breezy described her second day of third grade at a new school when she fainted while giving a book report. Veneziale interviewed Breezy for more details (the school was in New Jersey, the teacher was Mrs. Walker, the book was Nancy Drew, and if she had it to do over again, Breezy would have said “no” when asked to do her report). Then the cast re-created the event before rewinding and providing the “just say no” alternative reality. Morgan Reilly (aka Hummingbird) was especially effective in the role of Breezy, who became the center of a “raise your voice” anthem at the end of the bit.
A more intimate moment had four performers on stools riffing on the audience-inspired word “destiny” by sharing a story they assured us was 100% true. Jay C. Ellis (aka Jellis J) rapped about his childhood in Ohio and coming out. Andrew Bancroft (aka Jelly Donut) described his time living in the Bay Area when he discovered rap battles in Oakland and found his life’s calling. Veneziale (aka Two Touch) also recalled time spent living in San Francisco, but that quickly expanded into a piece about racial equality and George Floyd’s needless death. Throughout these stories, Aneesa Folds (aka Young Nees) supplied soulful vocals, which were mostly vocalizations on the word destiny. It was a beautiful segment that underscored the notion that improv isn’t always (and shouldn’t always be) going for laughs.
The show’s finale had Veneziale finding an audience member willing to go into great detail about their day prior to arriving at the theater. On this night, a high school science teacher named Jay talked about his kids, his parents, his job, his workout regimen and his invitation to discuss Finnish education at a Palo Alto senior center. Then the full cast turned that day into a rather astonishing hip-hop musical.
Part theater, part concert, part party trick, Freestyle Love Supreme revels in on-the-spot creativity. The stage crackles with invention as the talented performers revel in riffing off of one another and sharing the spotlight. It’s generous, it’s dazzling and it’s the kind of spine-tingling communal experience you could never get in front of a screen.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale’s Freestyle Love Supreme continues through Feb. 13 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$130. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org. ACT’s Covid policies are here.
Check out the excellent documentary We Are Freestyle Love Supreme on Hulu.