A&E Pick of the Week
To paraphrase a thought shared by at least a handful of audience members as they streamed out of the opening-night performance of “Freestyle Love Supreme” at Seattle Repertory Theatre: My brain just doesn’t work that fast, and I’m not entirely convinced it ever could.
“Freestyle Love Supreme,” a hip-hop comedy show heavily doused in freestyle rap, sets down at Seattle Rep through March 13 as part of an 11-city tour that showcases the phenomenon the 2019 Broadway show has become. Anyone familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work on “Hamilton” or “In the Heights” will likely recognize a similar stylistic stamp on this show. After all, the show was created nearly two decades ago, predating the Tony-winning hits when it was developed in 2004 by Miranda, frequent collaborator and director Thomas Kail, and longtime friend and performer Anthony Veneziale, aka “Two-Touch,” who also conceived the show and leads the talented ensemble on the road.
With many Broadway shows, and really theater performances in general, a good deal of the magic comes from the perfection and execution, be that design, choreography or vocal prowess. This isn’t that. Now, Beowulf Boritt’s set design and Jeff Croiter’s lighting design are both gorgeous, and it’s clear that these performers are all practiced — and well researched enough to crack a few jokes at the expense of the Kraken, Seahawks and Mariners — but it’s honestly the mistakes that make this show buzz.
After all, as Veneziale pointed out during the show, everything is happening for the first time and the last time, right here, right now. “Freestyle Love Supreme” is not only unafraid of its rough edges, it embraces them.
“The mistakes in our show actually paint the most vivid picture of what it is we’re attempting to do,” Veneziale said, in a separate interview, of turning audience suggestions into elaborate musical numbers. “I love those more than the successful lines, the ones where we kind of come up short, because it tells the audience in real time that this thing is so incredibly hard.”
To their credit, all of the performers make it look incredibly easy. Perhaps none more so than Veneziale himself and Chris Sullivan (aka “Shockwave”), who are both heavily featured in “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,” the documentary detailing the early days of the show’s inception (currently streaming on Hulu). Of course, every line isn’t a gem and there are moments where an idea so fills a performer’s head that it spills out of the rapid meter, resulting in a rhyme falling a split second late.
But that’s the enjoyable tension of the show. And that makes it all the more impressive when someone cleverly nails a turn of phrase. One particular jaw dropper on opening night was Jay C. Ellis, aka “Jellis,” turning an audience-suggested topic of “perspective” into an intricate story of self-discovery that would have been stirring as an off-the-cuff speech, let alone a free-flowing rap.
Underscoring much of the lyrical acrobatics are beatboxers Sullivan and Kaila Mullady, aka “Kaiser Rözé,” who capture the feeling of watching a skilled foley artist as they work together to flesh out scenes with an exhaustive array of vocal percussion and sound effects. With the incredible vocal abilities of Aneesa Folds, aka “Young Nees,” and Morgan Reilly, aka “Hummingbird,” “Freestyle Love Supreme” is also able to shift seamlessly from rap to Broadway-worthy power ballads. Folds called the show a theatrical experience of freestyle hip-hop and a musical extravaganza.
“That’s the only way to explain it,” Folds said. “It’s like ‘Wild ‘N Out’ and ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’ if they had a baby full of love and celebration in the spirit of lifting each other up and spreading joy.”
As both Folds and Veneziale reflected on the show, they pointed to the “love” in the center of the show’s title. When Veneziale asked, toward the beginning of the opening-night performance, who was venturing out to the theater for an in-person production for the first time since the pandemic began, he was met with a slew of applause. That’s what this show is trying to provide: a chance to reconnect with others.
This connection is embodied best in a “day in the life” segment led by Veneziale, when he asked one person from the audience to talk him through their day. Even sitting on opposite ends of Seattle Rep’s stage to stay socially distanced, Veneziale simply and gently conversed with the audience volunteer in a way that turned the moment with a complete stranger into a beautiful shared experience for everyone in attendance.
“What has been so incredible is seeing the power of bringing people back together in this way,” said Veneziale. “To say to people, it’s OK to gather in this way, and to have joy and share stories that are your stories about who you are right now — I think it’s been really, really cathartic.”