Review: ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ is back in D.C. with fresh rhymes, familiar face

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“Freestyle Love Supreme,” the improvised hip-hop show now packing the Kennedy Center with fresh-spun rhymes and bottomless wit, was founded on spontaneity. Yet, the touring production doesn’t leave the audience’s enjoyment to chance — not with this foolproof template, courtesy of the minds behind “Hamilton” and an awe-inspiring ensemble of voices new and old.

Although master of ceremonies Andrew Bancroft (stage name: Jelly Donut) emphasized at Tuesday night’s show that every performance of “Freestyle Love Supreme” is unpredictable, this Tony-winning show still feels guaranteed to leave patrons tapping their toes, laughing uncontrollably and marveling at the sheer talent onstage. Converting audience suggestions into quick riffs, spoken-word monologues and full-length musical numbers, the performers pull off a special kind of magic trick. You know exactly how they’re doing it — with vocal prowess and nimble minds — but seeing, and hearing, still isn’t believing.

The group Freestyle Love Supreme goes back to the early 2000s, when it was created by Anthony Veneziale with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, two wunderkinds who would go on to give the world “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.” After sporadic performances over the years, including a 2019 Kennedy Center stint, the group resurfaced later that year with a Kail-directed Broadway run and returned for a post-lockdown engagement that concluded this winter.

How chill can Broadway get? Lin-Manuel Miranda and company throw down some ‘Freestyle Love’ to find out.

Andrew Fried’s 2020 documentary “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,” now streaming on Hulu, reflects on the group’s humble origins. Fans of that film will recognize one of Freestyle Love Supreme’s founding members as a special guest at the Kennedy Center this week: Christopher Jackson, the Tony nominee who originated the roles of Benny in “In the Heights” and George Washington in “Hamilton.” Joining a cast that has been touring for months, Jackson (a.k.a. C-Jack) and his velvety vocals seamlessly slipped back into the show Tuesday without stealing it — though his star power did prompt a barrage of “Hamilton” references. (“You know I love it here,” Jackson said of Washington. “This is my town.”)

Running point on the crowd work, Bancroft kept the show moving with an appealing “yes, and” sensibility, especially when engaging with an audience member celebrating scans that showed she was cancer-free. The human soundboard that is Kaila Mullady (known as Kaiser Rözé onstage) enriched the evening’s soundtrack with vocal-cord-defying beatboxing. Jay C. Ellis (a.k.a. Jellis J) proved himself to be a particularly prolific freestyler, providing a surprisingly moving moment when he turned a prompt about dodgeball into a touching ode to his late father. And Morgan Reilly (a.k.a. Hummingbird), a recent newcomer to the group’s fluctuating membership, wielded musical theater parodies as a showcase for her transcendent voice.

Ace musicians Simone Acosta and James Rushin also imbued the proceedings with lush rhythms evoking the Miranda songbook, and scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s stacked stereos made for a striking backdrop. Jeff Croiter’s lighting design came with its own improvised flourishes, such as red and blue flashes when the topic turned to one patron’s Parisian misadventures.

The D.C. crowd held up its side of the bargain when it came to cultivating an idiosyncratic experience, responding to a request for annoyances with “the Supreme Court,” “the filibuster” and “lying.” (“But we already said ‘Supreme Court,’ ” Bancroft quipped after that last suggestion.) The local flair only emphasized the fact that no two “Freestyle Love Supreme” performances are the same. After two decades of free-wielding ingenuity, the show still doesn’t miss a beat.

Freestyle Love Supreme, conceived by Anthony Veneziale. Created by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Veneziale. Directed by Kail. Scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Lisa Zinni; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Nevin Steinberg. About 80 minutes. $45-$135. Through Sunday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.