Back in January of 2020, “Freestyle Love Supreme” performed at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco as part of SF Sketchfest shortly after their 2019 Broadway run concluded. As is the case with every one of their shows, they lean on the audience to provide suggestions, their dizzying word play set to a live beatboxer and two keyboardists.
On this night, there was a curious word suggestion – Coronavirus. A case had been detected in China, and at that moment in time, there was no reason to believe the virus would find its way here. The suggestion was accepted by the show’s ringmaster Anthony Venziale (Two Touch), jokes were made, the rap lyrics were hilarious, and we all demagnetized our Yondr pouches and went off into the night at the show’s conclusion.
While there was no cause for alarm at the time, a night when Wayne Brady of “Whose Line is it Anyway” was the special guest, the inevitable shut down fell hard upon. That capacity performance was one of the final moments of normalcy that Bay Area audiences experienced. A full recovery has proven to be elusive to this day, but there are certainly some hopeful signs.
One of those signs is “Freestyle Love Supreme’s” return, but instead of the swan song that it didn’t see coming, the show has reopened American Conservatory Theater’s season at the Geary Theater, a building last used for opening/closing night of “Toni Stone” in March of 2020.
The show, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Veneziale and Thomas Kail, is a raucous affair, a piece that throws out the kind of energy tailor-made for the denizens of audiences returning to live performance. The crowd was fully ready to hoot and holler for 90 straight minutes.
A combination of fresh-faced newbies and Supreme veterans are part of the national tour that spins hip-hop tracks on command, each performer moving their mouths at breakneck speed, single words and lengthy anecdotes providing all the fodder and revelry.
The rap fare oscillates between subjects that can be a mixture of light and jokey to crass and vulgar. Yet none of it is ever gratuitous. Each performer is gifted with a heavy splash of dialect dexterity, including Chris Sullivan, aka Shockwave, who is a beatboxing marvel. Rap’s signature bass and a beat is created deftly through Sullivan’s lips and breath that dips and darts everywhere, living firmly on a metronome.
On this night, where the audience was in an understandably extra celebratory mood, suggestions flew hot and heavy. What makes the show a delight is how the energy brings such joy. The show’s framework does not veer outside its structure, but the freedom to flow within that structure is vast.
Some audience members were given special treatment, playing a major role in the show as the company builds brilliant and lengthy games interspersed with highly-nuanced showcases of craft informed by freestyle’s minutiae, all presented in front of the dazzling and delightful set design by Beowulf Borritt and Jeff Croiter’s cherubic lights. There was one who experienced a horrid memory, passing out on day two in the third grade at a new school while giving a book report. Years later, the memory and evil overhead projector finally got their comeuppance in a particularly brilliant showcase by the hip-hoppers. And the grand finale is all about taking the banality of a day in the life and making it a full-on hip hop musical. Never has a drive down 101 and taking kids home been so interesting.
Leading the show is mastermind beat-spitter Sullivan, laying down smoothness informing each moment of the piece. His dominance as he shows his bars are wonderfully addicting (I witnessed Kaila Mullady, aka Kaiser Rözé in the role a few days later, who is just incredible).
Veneziale is a standout MC, one of the show’s original members, handling the duty that connects the troupe to the crowd. His friendly demeanor and twinkle as he snuggles up to the audience with a wink and smile, are disarming and charming. Others who jump into the show (the entire company participated in some way on opening night) do many things well. Jay C. Ellis (Jellis J) and Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut) are both fresh and committed to each moment. Yet the standout star is other-worldly talent Aneesa Folds (Young Nees), a powerful and stunning presence, killing with the raps and shredding with the vocals. A particular scene which becomes a toned down and expressive take on a personal and societal truth, Folds providing the chills with her trills, balances nicely the controlled yet frenetic chaos that is the rest of the show.
Despite Coronavirus just getting started with us in early 2020, a group like Freestyle Love Supreme has proven ready to provide moments of unbridled joy, helping move past the harrowing nature of recent years. The show is a fantastic choice to end ACT’s long pause and begin a new normal. That is something everybody who walks into the Geary is searching for, deserves, and by the end, gets.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
American Conservatory Theater presents “Freestyle Love Supreme”
Conceived by Anthony Veneziale
Created by Veneziale, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail
Directed by Kail
The Word: American Conservatory Theater is one of the last to kick off their new season after the Covid-19 reset, and bringing in the talents of Freestyle Love Supreme is a terrific choice. Show is different nightly, a true joy to witness.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Through Feb. 13
Tickets range from $10 – $130
For tickets, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org