If “gerund” isn’t the very last word I ever expected to hear uttered on a Broadway stage, it’s probably pretty darn close. Broadway rarely gives grammar lessons, after all.
And yet there it was, being blithely tossed out by Anthony Veneziale toward the beginning of a performance of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the jubilant evening of improvised rap over which he was presiding with embracing geniality at the Booth Theatre.
What can I say? Veneziale, and the show, had me at “gerund.”
Without belaboring this business, I would just observe that a performer who can casually dredge up that rather archaic grammatical term — which refers to words that are formed with verbs and an “ing” ending but act as nouns — has both a capacious knowledge of language and a formidably quick wit. And so it proved throughout “Freestyle Love Supreme” as Veneziale and his fellow performers indulged in giddily goofy, on-the-fly rap routines inspired by words and tales volunteered by the audience. (If you’re still wondering — which I doubt — the gerund in question was “waxing,” which was shouted from the mezzanine when Veneziale, who often acts as the evening’s emcee and audience-wrangler, called for a verb to start off a routine.)
“FLS,” as it is abbreviated in neon on Beowulf Borritt’s nifty but simple set, bathed in neon lighting by Jeff Croiter, was conceived by Veneziale, and created by him in collaboration with Thomas Kail, who directs the proceedings with light-fingered finesse, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Last seen at Greenwich House Theater in a sellout run last season, the show has now opened on Broadway.
Veneziale, or whoever is leading the show that night, is joined onstage by a cast of at least three other performers as well as a guest star or two. (The guests rotate. I wouldn’t pin your hopes on an appearance by the busy Miranda, but who knows?) Supported by two musicians at synthesizers, and with a human beatbox — I saw Chris Sullivan — providing a whole rhythm section with just a microphone and his voice, the cast runs through a tight 90 minutes or so of freewheeling, free-associating wordplay in which they collaborate with the congeniality of old friends and the dovetailing skills of an expert sports team in peak form.
Since the cast changes and the show relies for its material on the audience’s (voluntary!) participation, no two performances will be alike; repeat visits, if money permits, would probably reveal entirely different aspects of the cast’s talents. Some may shine in the spotlight one night; others will step to the fore the next.
At the performance I caught, Veneziale was joined by fellow “FLS” founding member Christopher Jackson (an original star of “Hamilton”) as well as Utkarsh Ambudkar, who is a central performer and one of the wittiest wordsmiths I’ve ever seen live. (Given the term “cottage cheese,” he instantly riffed a hilarious bit illuminating its grisliness.) Emerging from behind his synthesizer to join in a routine inspired by the word “Russia” was another founding member, Arthur Lewis, possessed of a sweet high tenor. And the two guests were the bright-eyed, magnetic Aneesa Folds, who joined the cast after taking part in the group’s freestyle classes, and, fresh from a matinee of “Hamilton,” the Tony-winning James Monroe Iglehart, who slid into the familial vibe with remarkable ease.
Describing the show in traditional theater terms would only be deflating, but I can give an example of the wild ingenuity that is continually on display. At one point Veneziale asks audience members to recall, in a few words, a singularly bad experience from their lives. From the shouted responses he chose the rather challenging phrase “anaphylaxis on an elephant.” Turns out the fellow had once been sharing an elephant ride in India with some friends when, despite being a doctor(!), he unwisely plucked a clementine off a tree to eat and had a violent allergic reaction. Copious amounts of Benadryl and a movie theater invaded by monkeys also figured into this unlikely, but apparently true story.
And from this the performers improvised, with virtually no visible consultation among them, an elaborate and hilarious parodic re-creation of this peculiar series of events, tossing ideas back and forth like batons. All made contributions, although Ambudkar, in particular, took the lead in pushing this bizarre tale — mostly told in instantly composed rhyme — into sublime comic territory. Somehow it all ended up with the population of Peru being dazed into sleep by overdoses of Benadryl. And with Veneziale playing an alpaca. Or something like that.
To borrow a much-over-quoted lyric from “Hamilton,” you kind of need to be in the room where it happens to appreciate the ingenuity and comic vibrancy that continually spills from the stage. I’m normally itchy with discomfort at improvisation-based shows, worrying that the performers will freeze up or fall flat. Improv is the theatrical equivalent of a high-wire circus act: one false move and – yikes! At “FLS,” however, I soon eased back in my seat, because it was clear that no one onstage was in danger of losing their balance.
“Freestyle Love Supreme” opened at the Booth Theatre on Wed. Oct. 2, 2019.
Creative: Conceived by Anthony Veneziale; Created by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale; Directed by Thomas Kail; Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by Lisa Zinni; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg.
Producers: Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jenny & Jon Steingart and Jill Furman.
Cast: Utkarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, Arthur Lewis, Chris Sullivan, Anthony Veneziale, Aneesa Folds and Kaila Mullady.