Critic’s Pick: Review: At ‘Freestyle Love Supreme,’ Attention Must Be Paid. Really.


They are also improvising the staging. The most extraordinary part of “Second Chance” is the rewind, which like the similar section of the song “Satisfied” in “Hamilton” runs all the physical action you’ve just seen in reverse. But there is this difference: In “Freestyle” the performers can rely only on their instantaneous muscle memory.

If the words and action are unfailingly surprising, the music is more predictable, mostly bluesy chords that allow the improvisers to spin out noodles of melody. (On Saturday, the rappers were accompanied on keyboards by Arthur Lewis and Ian Weinberger, while the astonishing Chris Sullivan provided additional sound effects with just mouth and microphone.) Even so, when the lyrics and melody land in the same emotional place at the same moment, the sensation of great depth is like that of any good song, multiplied here by the difficulty factor.

It’s useless to point out highlights that will never recur but, for me, “Freestyle” paradoxically soared when it took a breather from its giddy high spirits. A number I’ll call “True” spins what Mr. Veneziale tells us are completely factual reminiscences from a word suggested by the audience. The word “Mom” prompted Mr. Jackson, an original “Freestyle” performer and more recently a star of “Hamilton,” to thank his for not killing him despite his terrible misbehavior as a youngster; Mr. Lewis sang an impromptu lament for his, who recently died.

Under the direction of Mr. Kail, who also directed “Hamilton,” “Freestyle” is loose enough to permit such moments — or maybe smart enough to head directly toward them. And yet it is also, within the limits of improv, extremely tight, so that you never worry you will wind up watching the cast fall into a pothole (or canal), unless intentionally.

This is partly the result of an ideal mix of personality types: Mr. Veneziale warmly upbeat, Mr. Ambudkar snarky-nerdy, Mr. Sullivan impish and explosive, Mr. Jackson joyful yet commanding. (Other guest stars scheduled to appear before the mostly sold-out show closes on March 3 include James Monroe Iglehart, Daveed Diggs and Lin-Man himself.)

But the real secret of the show is the cast’s commitment to deep attentiveness. Words and phrases called out by the audience, even those you thought had been discarded, whirl back into the narrative repeatedly, with all the punch of reprises. You have been heard!

So when the usher unlocks your phone from the pouch, you may feel as I did: strangely uninterested in turning it on. That’s digital health indeed.

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