Review: ACT’s ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ Says You’re Worth a Comedy Aria

Aneesa Folds, aka Young Nees (left); Chris Sullivan, aka Shockwave; Andrew Bancroft, aka Jelly Donut; and Anthony Veneziale, aka Two Touch, perform during “Freestyle Love Supreme” at ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco. The performance is the first at the theater since March 11, 2020. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Take your day: the arguments with the kids, the skipping transits, that prickly interaction or two that stood out against the backdrop of routine. Get interviewed about it, in a peppery lightning ride. Then sit back and watch a crew of blasphemous talented singers, beatboxers and rappers concoct, on the fly, a miniature hip-hop opera about it, dazzling and celebrating you simultaneously.

You’re Worth It Says “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the freestyle comedy-rap fusing improv show that reopened the American Conservatory’s Geary Theater on Wednesday, January 26, including a welcome pre-show from the mayor of San Francisco, London N. Breed.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Unscripted ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ Offers Rhyme and Cheerful Catharsis

San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed celebrates opening night before ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ at ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

The play’s loving ability to see a comedic air in every audience member, no matter how quirky, makes “Freestyle” a perfect fit for ACT’s first in-person production since the pandemic. The 15,000 free or very low-cost tickets, sponsored by SalesForce, don’t hurt either. (“‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ is the celebration we all need – a chance, after a very difficult year, to come together and be inspired as a community,” CEO Marc Benioff told The Chronicle in a communicated.)

The set – a core group joined throughout the run by a rotating lineup of special guests, including “Hamilton” family cameos from “Freestyle” co-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda – blends free imagination and well-honed rigor.

There’s emcee Anthony Veneziale, aka Two Touch, who speaks in the happy, muffled voice of a father reading a bedtime story, but can add an adults-only reference without changing registers. Soliciting prompts from audience members – an action verb, a favorite word – he knows just when to encourage and just when to mock.

Anthony Veneziale aka Two Touch (right) and Aneesa Folds aka Young Nees perform during ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ at ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Then there’s Chris Sullivan, aka Shockwave, and Kaila Mullady, aka Kaiser Rözé, whose beatbox rhythms give juice and structure to the show. The duo must have entire factories of muscle in their lips, tongues like hummingbird wings, as each can create the sounds of two percussion instruments and perform both tracks simultaneously. They can shape sound effects ranging from splats and plops to Dolby Digital surround sound.

But the star of the show is Aneesa Folds, aka Young Nees, whose gale-force pipes and sweeping vocal range alone would be full of artistry. To her record-ready vocals, she adds high-pitched comedic judgment, landing one of opening night’s first big jokes. From the pet peeve suggested by a “vegan girlfriend” audience member, she wondered if a particular sex act would fall under the woman’s dietary restrictions.

Aneesa Folds aka Young Nees (foreground) and Anthony Veneziale aka Two Touch perform during “Freestyle Love Supreme” at ACT’s Geary Theater Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

While the 18-year-old show mostly runs solid, its improvisational conceits proven to work, not everything plays to the performers’ strengths. In one sequence, the ensemble improvises a love song from a single word suggesting something an audience member cannot do without. The performers tap into their own lives, which turn into uninspired rhymes, filler bars, and life lessons about the value of being true to yourself. (The same thing happened around the same time on the show two years ago, when “Freestyle Love Supreme” performed at SF Sketchfest.)

Much more worthy are the segments where the company dives deep into the lives of audience members, recreating and responding to stories without carefully resolving their twists. As another viewer recounts a traumatic childhood memory, for example, the performers delight not in the pain but in the mature details that Veneziale elicits: the classroom overhead projector causing an injury, the word salad of the name from an elementary school in New Jersey, the secret sauce that perfumes the speeches of an individual.

Aneesa Folds, aka Young Nees (left); Chris Sullivan, aka Shockwave; Andrew Bancroft, aka Jelly Donut; and Anthony Veneziale, aka Two Touch, perform during “Freestyle Love Supreme” at ACT’s Geary Theater. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

And somehow, one of the funniest types of jokes on “Freestyle Love Supreme” is the simple revisiting of a reference from the start of the show: that over-the-top gesture that a viewer on the balcony did to help Veneziale understand what she was saying through her mask. , this discolored suggestion of the mezzanine.

It’s not the incident itself that brings joy, but the fact that we witnessed it together and shared something – a true testament to the power of the theater and what its devotees have missed during the pandemic.

M“Freestyle Love Supreme”: Designed by Anthony Veneziale. Created by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale. Directed by Thomas Kail. Until February 13. Two o’clock. $5 to $130. ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., SF 415-749-2228.

  • Lily Janiak

    Lily Janiak is the theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @LilyJaniak

Daniel K. Denny