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Improvised wit and empathy make for fabulous night of theater and hip-hop music at The Armory.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE - Morgan Reilly (right) was particularly good at playing a little girl who left her cat in the dryer. Reilly improvised tunes as she sang, rather than rapped, which is arguably the toughest task in "Freestyle Love Supreme."

One of the funniest and most energetic shows Portland Center Stage has put on in a while at The Armory could be the catalyst for bring people back to live theater.

"Freestyle Love Supreme" is a rapping version of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" The improv show where actors think on their feet to deliver skits within seconds of being given audience prompts. Just to make it harder, everything has to rhyme, usually in couplets. "Freestyle Love Supreme" has the same rhythm as "Hamilton" and "In the Heights" because it has Lin-Manuel Miranda DNA in it. Miranda, Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale created "Freestyle Love Supreme" as a hip hop musical long before those big Broadway hits. The show tours without the Manuel or Krail, but Veneziale is part of a deep bench of regulars and short-term, special guests.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE - This is half of the "Freestyle Love Supreme" cast, who skillfully improvise hip hop live on stage to audience prompts.

On opening night, April 7, there were plenty of empty seats, but sales have picked up considerably since then. Just a few red dots (unsold seats) remain on the ticketing app map for the nights Wayne Brady will guest (April 14 and 15), and sales for other nights through the final show on May 1 look healthy.

The audience hangs on every line waiting to see what the rhyme with be, and to get the meaning of the sentence, since the last word is often a main verb or noun. Sometimes they rap sitting on bar stools, sometimes they dance and act. In the chaos, the constantly not knowing what will happen is what provides the thrill, like watching a high-wire juggling act. Although here, the worst that can happen is they offend someone, get canceled on social media and their career is over. (To this end, the actors jovially warn, no cameras are allowed until the final curtain call.)

First night was a triumph for the latest iteration of "Freestyle Love Supreme" as they seized their opportunities and gave Portland a hilarious show of improvised rapping and off-the-cuff tunes.

PHOTO: RAYOUNG CHUNG - Too big to flail: 'Freestyle Love Supreme' were magnificent on opening night in April 8, and throughout its stay in Portland.

Epic flail

The audience submitted all the ideas for the collection of rappers, beatboxers and musicians to make a good story. After a warmup where they wandered onstage introducing themselves, MC Veneziale asked for word prompts: first verbs, then things that annoy, then things the audience loves. From that, the group spun three songs around the words flail, boys and rainbows. The rappers' mental gymnastics were amazing, not just in rhyming on cue, but in spinning stories and contemporary references: Greg Abbott, they see you.

The show built up to two epic pieces based on true stories from the audience. In one, the players asked for the headline of a true story where someone wishes they could have a second chance.

The one that leaped out was a woman called Leslie telling how, at age 4, she took a nap in the clothes dryer with her kitten, then left it there while her mom started the machine. (The cat lived but lost some toes.)

The players pantomimed the whole scene — Morgan Reilly was particularly good at playing a little girl, Andrew Bancroft the cat, and Jay C. Eliss the Spanish-speaking mother, Margaret.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE - Jay C. Eliss  was superb playing a Spanish speaking mother, and the interior monolog of another, in Freestyle Love Supreme.

Seeing them move, rap and sing as they thought was impressive. They took it to another level, imagining the story going forward to where the girl grows up and becomes a traumatized student in Eugene with a thing for attacking animals' feet.

Then they played everything backward — dance moves, rapping, music — and gave the protagonist her second chance, which was funnier than the first, with a bonus "Memory" riff from the musical "Cats." Their ability to think on their feet was mesmerizing, as was their ability to switch between humor and affection.

For the climax they asked people for details from their day. The winner was self-evident: a woman who drove an ice cream truck for the first time. The raw material got better and better as she was interviewed (she'd had a few beers), and they launched into a "Day in the Life of White Lady," complete with tennis lessons with a pro named Marco, a dutiful husband called Mark, free ice cream day at the Hillsboro Hops, and a fanciful ride to The Armory with her Jesuit-senior daughter. Beatboxer Kaila Mullady played her as a raunchy Amy Schumer type, and Ellis was brilliant at rapping her thoughts out loud.

The slow-motion tennis match was sublime theater, and the bit ended the way the whole show started, complete with satirical land acknowledgement and the cast strolling out to introduce themselves.

Every night will be different, depending on the prompts, and it's tempting to go back to see if "Freestyle Love Supreme" a previous performance.

"Freestyle Love Supreme" performs at Portland Center Stage at the Armory now through May 1.

For more: http://www.pcs.org/freestyle-love-supreme.


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