Hip-hop gets the improv treatment in "Freestyle Love Supreme." Photo by Joan Marcus
You think improvisation is hard? Try improv rapping. Then try improv rapping to a prompt like “seasoned croutons.”
No sweat for the performers of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the musical/improv show created by Anthony Veneziale, along with Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda. They take suggested words, phrases or stories from the audience and on a dime turn them into hip-hop numbers in a spontaneous creation technique known as freestyle.
It’s on full display at the Old Globe Theatre and is proof that you can make something up as you go along and get laughs doing it.
Often – well, possibly more often than not – improv based on audience suggestions can go awry, making for an awkward and seemingly interminable evening. While “Freestyle Love Supreme” is essentially a different show every night because each audience is different, its opening night on Wednesday was fast-moving, funny and enjoyable.
Sure, the troupe members sometimes lost the beat while inventing their raps on the spot, and some of the audience suggestions were so lame that not even the most imaginative hip-hopper on Earth could turn them into comedy gold. But the “FLS” ensemble is experienced and quick. Most of the time, they demonstrated why this show, which has been around since the early 2000s, is so popular and enduring.
The best opening-night bits included re-enacting in rap one audience member’s first date (which happened to be at this performance) and another’s childhood memory of being stalked by a cougar – his prompt suggestion that was the catalyst for the bit: “Being chased by a cougar, and not the good kind.”
Andrew Bancroft, as “Jelly Donut,” serves as MC among the troupe, with Mark Martin, as “Mandible,” specializing in ambient noises. Jay C. Ellis, as “Jellis J,” and the amazing Dizzy Senze, as “Dizzy,” are the most impressive rappers, somehow able to make spontaneous sound un-spontaneous. Morgan Reilly as the appropriately named “Hummingbird” is the featured singer, and on opening night she portrayed the cougar too (“not the good kind”).
The backdrop onstage is a wall of mighty tweeters and woofers, and the moody lighting suggests a trendy club.
At 85 minutes or so with no intermission, “Freestyle Love Supreme” zips right along. Its comedy can be snarky but never mean-spirited. Does one need to be conversant with hip-hop to connect with it? Probably. If you’re not, it’s about time you got conversant and “FSL” is an invigorating way to do so.
“Freestyle Love Supreme” runs through July 10 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.