Kidnapping, display toilets in Home Depot, and miniature toy bongs were under the spotlight at the Emerson Colonial Theater on March 19 as “Freestyle Love Supreme” improvised their way through 90 minutes of laughter and curveball audience suggestions. The improv troop comes to the Emerson Colonial Theater as a part of their national tour following a Broadway run that earned the show a Special Tony Award in 2020. The tour’s Boston leg runs from March 18 until April 2.
The show promises an unconventional theatrical experience. The self-described freestyle, improvisational hip-hop comedy group features an ever-changing cast of talented comedians and musicians. Each show consists of a collection of improv “games” following a predetermined structure. However, the topics and outcomes of each game are dependent on audience suggestions.
The Covid-19 pandemic made improv much harder. Distinguishing what audience members are shouting as suggestions is made all the more difficult when masks make sounds muffled and lip reading impossible. But by embracing technology, the group turns the challenge into one of the show's strengths, making “Freestyle Love Supreme” even more interactive. While some games still rely on muffled shouts, others allow audience members to scan a QR code leading to a word suggestion form. These words are then, for example, used in a game where Two Touch (Anthony Veneziele) is tasked with incorporating them into a freestyle rap.
The audience’s role in the show cannot be understated. For each of the six improv games, audience suggestions drive the show's topics. While some suggestions are inevitable — Covid-19, politics, in-laws — and make for excellent joke material, the more outlandish ones prove to be the best fodder for the cast’s creativity. In a game of “Pet Peeves,” an audience member’s disdain for fruit baskets leads to a scathing freestyle about the inadequacy of the gift from Young Nees (Aneesa Folds). Her delightfully absurd rap concludes with a suggestion that there might be a very different place where you could “shove a banana.”
Folds’ willingness and aptitude for taking prompts in unexpected directions is proof that while suggestions from the audience present a challenge, the “Freestyle Love Supreme” cast can brilliantly spin even seemingly mundane topics in unexpected directions. Take for instance the audience suggestion of “ranch dressing” during the game “Things We Love.” Hummingbird (Morgan Reilly) begins with a verse, ditching rap in favor of melody, about her life-long love affair with the condiment. But things quickly take a turn toward the bizarre. Young Nees surprises the audience by completely shifting to a case against ranch in favor of blue cheese, while Jelly Donut (Andrew Bancroft) leaves the audience perplexed, giving a lengthy description of his old job cleaning stables, before ending with a pun about his “ranch dressing” attire.
While the main cast are certainly the stars, the true magic of “Freestyle Love Supreme” lies in the production team hiding behind the scenes. The seamlessness with which they are able to adjust to shifting tones, themes, and topics on the fly and in sync with the main cast is a remarkable achievement. They make it all too easy to forget that the entirety of the show — down to the musical cues and the lighting — is improvised. The small touches, like using purple lighting when a game called upon a “shiny purple toilet” or nailing the timing of a beat drop to end an improvised verse set “Freestyle Love Supreme” apart from any run-of-the-mill improv show.
The number of attendees decked out in the group's merch made it clear that many in the audience were “Freestyle Love Supreme” veterans. This comes as no surprise: With constant laughter shaped by audience suggestions, the show is uniquely suited for repeat viewing. Each performance promises new stories to explore and a fresh batch of jokes delivered by the all-star cast.