Forget the Tony Award, the Oscar and Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. Forget the MacArthur Foundation grant, the Pulitzer Prize, the Kennedy Center Honors. You haven’t really seen anything until you’ve seen Lin-Manuel Miranda portray an epileptic German shepherd named Ramona.
Yes, that happened, on Feb. 9 at Greenwich House Theater during the return engagement of Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip-hop improv group Miranda founded in 2003 along with Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale while they were working on the musical “In the Heights.” Apparently unscheduled drop-ins to the show constitute relaxation for Miranda, who is surely in need of letting loose after a whirlwind couple of months that included performing “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico and starring in the film “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Even on nights when Miranda doesn’t appear there’s the promise of guest appearances from other “Hamilton” vets Christopher Jackson, who was also in the show Feb. 9, Daveed Diggs and James Monroe Iglehart. It all started back at Wesleyan University, says Kail, who reports having little interest in theater (the real shocker here, considering he went on to win a Tony for directing "Hamilton") until Veneziale convinced him to help with a production of “a strange German play.” A few years later, while working with college bud Miranda on “Heights,” every break involved freestyling to the point they figured they might as well formalize things. The first performance, recalls Kail, was during the August 2003 blackout when "we charged a beer and $5.”
A more formal run happened at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in 2013; the current incarnation, which runs through March 3, started when the innovative company Ars Nova asked Kail if the group could handle a one-night benefit. “I missed the group and I wanted to get it back together,” says Kail. Everyone was scattered, he says, “but the stars aligned. They all just jumped at the chance.” So did the public: The show sold out in two days, but there’s still hope for tickets through a daily lottery at TodayTix.com.
Audiences who managed to get tickets do more than warm the seats. As with any good improv, they are part of the show and need little prodding when encouraged to throw out words to get things going. “Regurgitate” comes from somewhere in the back, but it’s quickly dismissed by Veneziale, who's charged with keeping it all moving. “We did that weeks ago.” Also biting the dust: “impeach.” Says Veneziale, “You aren’t the first.” It’s not that the group tries to steer clear of the political, he says the next morning, it’s more about keeping things fresh. “If we’ve already done a whole thing about impeaching Trump, we’re not going to repeat ourselves.” At the Feb. 9 show, the group touched on the Supreme Court. “RBG, gotta stay healthy,” worked its way in.
The group’s mission is simple, says Kail. “Can we make you feel better than when you walked in?” Indeed, they do, whether turning a rather bland story about a dad’s morning with his kids (crossword puzzle, banana smoothies, swim lessons) into 10 minutes of hilarity or really running with the story of the epileptic dog who escaped the house, got run over but lived to a ripe old age (leave it to Miranda to give that pup some cool hip-hop moves).
When it’s all over, people are reluctant to leave. “They just hang,” says Kail, “more than almost any other show I’ve ever done … they just want to stay in that energy. I feel the same way.”