Hilarious hip-hop improvisation: “Freestyle Love Supreme” at the Old Globe
Improvisation requires a very specific and happy set of skills: humor, memory, flexibility, keen listening, open-mindedness, wit and wordplay.
When you add rhythm and rhyme, a human percussionist and two killer keyboardists, speed and agility – physical, mental and verbal – you get hip hop improvisation, brilliantly embodied in the “Freestyle Love Supreme “, winner of a Tony Award. now making a stop at The Old Globe as part of their first national tour, after two successful Broadway stints (pre and post-pandemic), which earned them a special Tony.
The FLS concept was born 18 years ago with Anthony Veneziale (AKA Two Touch), who used to have freestyle rap sessions in the basement theater of New York’s Drama Book Shop with his old bandmates. classmates from Wesleyan University: Lin-Manuel Miranda (who would later write “In the Heights” and “Hamilton”) and Thomas Kail (who would go on to direct these two Broadway hits, as well as FLS).
[Interesting side-note: After the beloved 100+ year-old Drama Book Shop was forced to close, it was miraculously saved — acquired in 2021 by a veritable Theater Angel quartet from “Hamilton”: Miranda, Kail, lead producer Jeffrey Seller and theater owner James L. Nederlander].
The show’s title was inspired by world-renowned jazz saxophonist, composer, pioneer and improviser, John Coltrane; specifically, one of his most acclaimed albums, 1964’s “A Love Supreme.”
The tour has a rotating body of ace performers, and each show is unique, as suggestions for freestyle rapping come from the audience. Each performance is created live, on location. This keeps it fresh and exciting. And sometimes downright mind-blowing. Of course, as with any improvisation, not all efforts succeed. But everything passes so quickly that it doesn’t matter.
Don’t miss the Hulu documentary about the origins and workings of FLS, “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme.”
The public likes the participatory aspect; they like to have their say and be heard. Especially now, after more than 2 years of isolation that we have all endured.
It’s exactly what the doctor ordered: an evening of pure, pure joy. It’s clear that the cast of crackerjack are as thrilled with what they’re doing as we are. They get an obvious kick out of each other’s creations.
At the performance I attended, I was thrilled that Veneziale was the host MC (there are three on the tour). He’s incredibly quick on his feet (literally and verbally). And very funny. The overall speed of thought and rhyme is truly breathtaking.
Under Kail’s superb direction, there is an overall structure for the 90-minute show.
The group will choose from word suggestions from using the QR code in the program. They ask people to call “a verb” (“deliberate” was the one chosen during my performance, and it was used with great wisdom, humor and politics). They’ll ask you to call things that really annoy you or something you can’t live without.
They will recreate someone’s day. And they will replicate someone’s story about an event that happened to them that they wish they could have handled better. This gives the participant a satisfying little opportunity to time travel and rectify.
They will even rap a bit about their own personal history.
Perhaps most impressively, they’ll go back to ideas that were discarded (and discarded) earlier, and tie it all together at the end with critiques and reiterations and hilarious references to what they’ve already done.
Much of it is random – based on what suggestions they receive or take – and much of it is fun and entertaining.
The two expert musicians: Shifty Hills (James Rushin) and Gigawatts (Victoria Theodore) improvise with the rappers. Even the lighting operator (design by Jeff Croiter) gets in on the act, lighting a dime to support the rapidly evolving efforts.
The 2016 World Champion Beatboxer, Mandible (Mark Martin) is a walking sound/tongue/noise machine, a rhythm section with hand motions and moves to boot.
Each of the rappers I saw (there are seven on the tour, some of whom appeared on Broadway) were singularly talented: with Veneziale, there was Jellis Jay (Jay C. Ellis), Dizzy (Dizzy Senze) and Hummingbird (vocalist/songwriter Morgan Reilly, who sings (often stratospherically) all of her improvisations and rhymes. For an audience experience in Greece, she used songs from “Mamma Mia” as a springboard.
It’s a trip to watch them do their thing.
“Freestyle Love Supreme” may not be theater per se. It probably won’t send you great thoughts. But it will leave you in awe of the talent you saw. And it makes for a terrifically fun evening.
- “Freestyle Love Supreme” runs on the Shiley Stage at the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park until July 10
- Performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, with two performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 5 and 9 p.m.
- Tickets (starting at $52) are available at 619-234-5623 or TheOldGlobe.org
- Duration: 90 minutes
- COVID protocol: Masks are recommended but not mandatory
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, is a longtime San Diego arts writer and Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of his previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.