Review: ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ is the hip-hop improv potluck that leaves you stuffed and starved
“Freestyle Love Supreme,” the hip-hop improv show that won a special Tony Award for its Broadway run, is different every night. Different guest stars. Different audience input. Different rap riffs.
The one constant is spontaneity. The show, which opened Thursday at Pasadena Playhouse, is created on the spot by a group of performers responding in the moment to prompts with clever rhymes and distinctive flows.
The potluck nature of “Freestyle Love Supreme” is part of the work’s communal charm. No one knows how the menu will turn out, but the feeling of togetherness alleviates some of the disappointment that at the end of the meal we’re left simultaneously stuffed and starved.
Anthony Veneziale, who emceed at Thursday’s opening under the handle Two Touch, created the show with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail long before “Hamilton” expanded hip-hop’s Broadway horizons. (The collective’s long journey is captured in the Hulu documentary “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme.”)
Directed by Kail, the show has set routines that invite unexpected play. With a nod to John Coltrane’s classic free jazz album “A Love Supreme,” the cast members of “Freestyle Love Supreme” go where chance, inspiration and their own talents lead them.
Veneziale poses questions to the audience to get things started. When one theatergoer shouted “fornicate” in response to a request for verbs, the ensemble swung into action, grateful to receive an action word with a little grit after a bunch of duds.
Another request was to name a current beef. A roar went up when someone hollered “the Supreme Court.” Before you knew it, beer-loving Brett Kavanaugh was the target of what might be described as a set of stand-up hip-hop.
Fresh from his triumph in “Kinky Boots” at the Hollywood Bowl, Wayne Brady, who was part of the rotation of “Freestyle Love Supreme” in New York, was the special guest star on Thursday. His flexible comedy skills — honed from years of doing TV improv — ensured a smooth opening night.
Jerry Mitchell’s Hollywood Bowl production of “Kinky Boots,” Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s Tony-winning musical, showcased a brilliant Wayne Brady.
But the star was unquestionably Aneesa Folds (a.k.a. Young Nees), who brought luscious R&B power to her hip-hop stylings. Verbally as well as vocally, she seemed bolder than her colleagues, one of whom laid down a few bars about an arthritic knee in a riff inspired by the word “edibles.”
“Freestyle Love Supreme” is more earnest than edgy. Rap’s sense of urgency, derived from exposing raw social truths and fearlessly bucking the status quo, is neutered. The audience is jollied along by Veneziale with polite puckishness.
At Thursday’s performance, there was as much deadwood as virtuosity. Perhaps opening night nerves or concerns about Pasadena decorum inhibited the cast. The intermission-less production started late and stretched on unduly. It felt like a long night.
Kaila Mullady (a.k.a. Kaiser Rözé) demonstrated her championship beatbox repertoire by generating a radio play’s worth of sound effects with her mouth alone. Richard Baskin Jr. (a.k.a. Rich Midway) and Victoria Theodore (a.k.a. Gigawatts) provided deft musical accompaniment, double-backing on a beat when the sound was right and smoothly transitioning from one performer to another.
One of the touching moments on Thursday involved an audience member who had booked his first television series as an actor. He was asked to run through the events of the day, giving us the before and after of his ecstatic news.
The interaction between Veneziale and this young man was a good deal more engaging than the rap opera reenactment that was then laboriously whipped up. A little improv goes a long way, but the crew of “Freestyle Love Supreme” are affable company.
The Tony-winning stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ opens at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre.
'Freestyle Love Supreme'
‘Freestyle Love Supreme’
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug 7.
Tickets: Starts at $30
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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