There aren’t many Tony-winning productions in which one of the veteran creator-performers can announce that he’s retiring from touring, right in the middle of a performance… and do it in song form… and have it be part of the natural flow of the evening. But that’s what happened at the opening night of “Freestyle Love Supreme” at the Pasadena Playhouse Thursday night, as the high-profile musical revue reached the final stop of an 11-city tour. Situational silliness abounded, as is the show’s natural wont, but so did some weirdly, wonderfully emotional moments that proved that improv and tears, while not necessarily natural bedfellows, are not mutually exclusive.
Anthony Veneziale, who created the show with Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail in circa 2004 (and who has acted as master of ceremonies for most of its recent revival runs), took an improvisational song in the middle of the show to sing to his wife and daughters in the audience about his guilt that he’d spend too much time away from them and would be leaving his role in the traveling company. “I’m finishing this tour, that is it for me / I’m hanging up the spurs from the Freestyle Love Supreme / It’s true, this is like the last show that I will do,” Veneziale rapped, adding that he had just six performances to go before quitting. “You sacrificed enough, no more / I want to spend every minute with you and our daughters / I hope you know I put you up on altars.” Not so especially funny, this sentimental interlude, but the audience was willing to forgive it that, as, to his left, singer Aneesa Folds then wailed, “This show blows my mind every day, like wow / You see, audience, we just learned that shit right now.” (A spokesperson subsequently clarified that Veneziale will still lead “Freestyle Love Supreme” and pop into show, just no longer as a cast regular.)
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The rest of the performances at the Pasadena Playhouse, continuing through Aug. 7, probably won’t be quite as personally revelatory as that — although Veneziale’s retirement notice did come during a specific portion of the show that’s preceded with the promise that “everything you’re about to hear is true,” so anything could happen. Thursday’s show felt like it went beyond the stakes that improvisational comedy is usually going for, with a few personally cathartic moments that won’t likely be repeated. And therein lies the rub of reviewing a production that’s almost wholly different from night to night — and even has cast members rotating in and out, and special guests, like Wayne Brady, who sat in for the whole of the Playhouse’s opening night. You feel a hesitation that maybe the Tonys committee did right before voting “Freestyle Love Supreme” a special award last fall: What if we just caught it on a particularly good night? Will the next audience to come in think our gushing was nuts?
But on the basis of opening night, anyway, this seems like an an easy call as a can’t-miss for L.A.-area comedy fans — regardless of whether Veneziale’s exit from his long turn with “Freestyle” signals any kind of end of the road for the troupe. (It shouldn’t, since director Kail probably isn’t going anywhere.) Even if the remaining shows go for pure, impetuous slapstick and there’s not a wet eye in the house, the rewards are likely to be worth it. You may say of some other theatrical productions that you wish you could see it every night, but the no-two-snowflakes nature of this one might make you literally and un-hyperbolically wish the show offered a season pass option.
A show of applause at the beginning of the night indicated that a lot of the crowd was bicoastal enough to have already seen incarnations of “Freestyle Love Supreme” during its limited 2019 and 2020 Broadway runs (with a few of the same ensemble members now in Pasadena). These found what was once a niche comedy show that Miranda co-conceived and starred in around the same time he was developing “In the Heights” suddenly becoming a hot mainstream ticket as a result of his and some of his collaborators’ “Hamilton” fame. A vaster part of the crowd had seen “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,” a documentary that premiered at Sundance before bowing on Hulu. So the trick was not new to many of the local theatergoers, although how it’s done will remain a source of ongoing fascination. Good “normal” improv is captivating enough for those of us who can’t imagine accessing those parts of our brains, even before adding the elements of doing it in constant rhyme and sometimes in melody — sort of the rough equivalent of Ginger Rogers doing something already brilliant backwards and in high heels.
The first segments in the opening-night performance were expert, if almost run-of-the-mill, exercises in combining multiple audience suggestions. A call-out for “things you hate” produced both “my toddler” and “the Supreme Court,” either of which could and did prompt the company to find something that rhymes with “uterus” and get just political enough for Veneziale to semi-comedically declare: “Freestyle is embarrassed to share the name ‘Supreme.’” Of the cast of eight, two were world-class beatboxers — aka sound-effects experts — with current regular Kaila Mullady joined on this night by O.G. FLS member Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan (standing in for Mark Martin); between them, these two basically add a complete mime segment to the show, while just happening to act as their own foley artists.
Things get more interesting, and impressive, when the company is required to build a full narrative, which is going to amount to two impromptu mini-rock-operas a night, based on attendees sharing their stories. One of these asks an audience member to tell about something shameful in which they wish they could reverse the narrative for a different outcome. That had an Al in the Playhouse’s balcony telling about a childhood encounter in which a neighborhood bully, Walter, had sprayed pee across a wide swath of playmates. In the musical suite built out of that, Wayne Brady portrayed the juvenile pisser in question — and quickly provided an illustration of why, at the outset, Veneziale reasserted the no-photos rule, because “taken out of context, Wayne’s show [‘Lets Make a Deal’] would be canceled tomorrow.”
Even better was the climactic number, which had another audience member, Patrick, describing his day — which had found him getting the call that he’d been cast as a series regular on an Apple+ series — as the gist for an epic medley about a pivotal moment in a show-biz career. (The fact that the Black Patrick was dually played by two blondes, Mullady and self-described Justin Timberlake lookalike Andrew Bancroft, led to a nice “Representation matters” joke.) The cast’s other powerhouse belter, Morgan Reilly, even found a pause to throw in a snippet of “A Chorus Line’s” “I Hope I Get It” amid the almost ridiculously apropos original improv material. For the actor in question, actually doing the Apple series may seem anticlimactic after seeing his life turned into a wildly joyful 15-minute musical on the spot.
But the cast members’ own truth still made for the mid-show highlight, in a segment that works off audience shout-outs, as always, but is introduced by Veneziale with the promise: “Everything you are about to hear is true.” The callout from the crowd was “edibles,” and Veneziale played a little fast-and-loose with that, calling his wife his spiritual edible as he made his aforementioned vow to retire from the road. But Brady and principal player Jay C. Ellis took it more literally as they both told THC-related stories, in rhyme, that managed to be just as touching. Ellis earnestly described in rap form how he had grown up from toddler age with the crippling pain of rheumatoid arthritis — speaking of things you don’t often hear in a hip-hop song: “I’ve had a knee replacement and I don’t take pain pills / And when I get emotional and I get up in my feels / I’m just saying, I praise the Lord for every one of his good deeds, but I’m so very thankful for that great plant weed / And my edibles.” Brady, for his part, recounted a hilarious story of how he never touched a drug till he was 48, then ended up going to MedMen and taking three edibles — or, two too many — and letting his daughter down by missing a key night in her life. It ended up being another bittersweet father/daughter story in a show where poignance isn’t supposed to be part of the deal they’re making.
Brady, who’s been a Freestyle Love Supreme irregular, fit so naturally into the cast this night (replacing James Rushin for an evening) that you’d imagine he collaborated with improv hip-hoppers instead of TV shoppers every night. In that category of household names who are still thoroughly underrated, let’s add his name. But he didn’t overshadow a regular company that’s been pulling off something that feels like necromancy all year. You will be tempted to come back to “Freestyle Love Supreme” to try to figure out what templates are set in place to ease the improvisations, but unlike a magic show, there’s no real illusion to spoil here. Some people’s synapses just do fire that much faster than ours. And if they happen to connect with the viscera for a minute or or two, too, then you’ve really got an extemporaneous night to remember.
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