fb-pixel Skip to main content

At the Colonial, the inspired improv of ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’

From left: Chris Sullivan, Wayne Brady, Anthony Veneziale, and Aneesa Folds in the Broadway production of "Freestyle Love Supreme." Sullivan, Folds, and Veneziale are among the cast performing during the show's run at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.Joan Marcus

When it’s going well, improvisational performance can stop time. Jazz soloing, improv comedy, great actors ad-libbing whole scenes on camera: In those moments, we’re watching fearless artists create something beautiful out of the void.

For a variety of reasons, everyday life has lately felt like a bit of a void. So “Freestyle Love Supreme,” which runs through April 2 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, comes right on time.

Founded almost 20 years ago by fellow Wesleyan grads Anthony Veneziale, Thomas Kail, and a theater hopeful named Lin-Manuel Miranda, this improvisational hip-hop comedy show debuted on Broadway in 2019. That milestone, of course, was made possible by the success of Miranda’s revolutionary musical “Hamilton,” which Kail directed.


Over the years, more than a dozen rappers and musicians have appeared with the group. For the Boston run, with Kail directing, Veneziale acts as the master of ceremonies, welcoming the audience to suggest words and phrases that the performers use to crack wise in rhyme.

The cast includes Jay C. Ellis, a booty-shaking provocateur in acid-washed denim and a colorful durag, and Aneesa Folds, a powerful voice in coveralls who goes by the stage name Young Nees.

Two New England natives, Mainer Andrew Bancroft (a.k.a. Jelly Donut) and Foxborough’s Chris Sullivan (a beatboxing savant who answers to “Shockwave”), round out the team. The rappers are accompanied by a versatile pair of keyboardists, Richard Baskin Jr. (Rich Midway) and James Rushin (who calls himself Not Draggin).

Miranda, the man everyone wants to see, still appears on occasion with “FLS.” He’s not expected in Boston, owing in part to obligations following the smash success of his soundtrack for Disney’s “Encanto.” On Friday, the cast teased his absence with a snippet of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the film’s runaway hit.

No Miranda hardly means don’t go. On opening night, Veneziale informed the audience that the truck carrying the crew’s costumes and props from their last engagement on the West Coast was held up in transit. That didn’t matter, either.


The show is all about the joys of language and hip-hop’s distinction as a storytelling medium, and for that the ensemble needed nothing but their voices. They crafted extended bits from simple audience prompts, with recurring themes ranging from elementary school to macadamia nuts. They drew loud laughs; when someone shouted the word “hope,” Veneziale heard it as “poop.”

Even when they pandered to Boston’s provincialism, it was charming. In his introductory rap, Ellis managed to work in a line — “And I lost my leg!” — from Dropkick Murphys’ pirate song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.” When someone suggested the word “Yankees,” he twisted that into a Southerner’s Civil War lament for the invading Northerners, hilariously impersonating Scarlett O’Hara.

According to the premise of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” every line is unique. “This is all happening for the first and last time,” Veneziale said at the outset.

That may be true, but the cast does operate with a recurring set of parameters. On Friday, segments included things that get on our nerves (hence “Yankees”) and “second chances.” For that one, an audience member told a story about the day she stuck a penny in an electrical outlet. Bancroft, portraying the narrator’s older sister, spun some lyric gold out of her annoyance that she was supposed to be babysitting her kid sister.


Do whatever you want, he/she urged: “There are no rules, this isn’t school/Just be your natural fool/Self.”

On Friday there were young people in the audience who could identify with those school kids, and there were folks old enough to have peers who still claim rap is not “music.” One and all left the theater assured of the power of freestyle, and the bravery it takes to just be your natural fool self.


Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, and Anthony Veneziale. Directed by Thomas Kail. At the Emerson Colonial Theatre through April 2. Tickets from $30. www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.