'Miss You Like Hell': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Gizel Jimenez (left) and Daphne Rubin-Vega in 'Miss You Like Hell'
Timely, but not as affecting as it should be.

Daphne Rubin-Vega plays an undocumented immigrant driving cross-country with her 16-year-old daughter in this musical written by Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegria Hudes and singer-songwriter Erin McKeown.

The creators of the new musical being presented at the Public Theater want to have it both ways. This timely show addresses such hot-button societal issues as teen suicidal depression and the deportation of undocumented immigrants. But in an effort to be as entertaining as impactful, it does so in a cutesy, cloying manner that undercuts the important messages being imparted. Miss You Like Hell misses its mark, although not for want of desperately trying.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Water by the Spoonful, who also wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical success, In the Heights, collaborates here with singer-songwriter Erin McKeown to depict a cross-country road trip undertaken by the Mexico-born Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her estranged 16-year-old daughter Olivia (Gizel Jimenez).

The two haven't seen each other in four years, with Beatriz residing in California, and Olivia living with her American father in Philadelphia. Beatriz shows up suddenly one night at her daughter's home, concerned about the suicidal thoughts expressed on her blog, "Castaways." She proposes a weeklong road trip so the two can reconnect. "I want to mom the fuck out of my girl," she proclaims. But she also has another purpose in mind. Beatriz is scheduled for a hearing that may result in her possibly being deported because of a long-ago marijuana conviction, so she hopes her daughter will serve as a character witness.

Olivia, resentful over her mother's years-long absence, is initially resistant. But she finally agrees, with the two setting off together in a borrowed, rundown pick-up truck. Along the way, Beatriz attempts to help Olivia overcome her depression and also clean up a little. "The comb is your friend," Beatriz counsels Olivia in mocking fashion. "The comb comes in peace." She also advises her daughter to ditch her ragged boots. "The biology experiment is over, hija." Beatriz teases. "Wear socks. Boys don't like stinky cheese feet."  

The journey becomes threatened when a routine traffic stop results in Beatriz getting arrested. But with the help of her California immigration lawyer (Marinda Anderson), the two eventually get back on the road.

Olivia does insist on making a pit stop at Yellowstone National Park, so she can meet park ranger Pearl (Latoya Edwards), one of her blog's most devoted followers. Along the way, mother and daughter have encounters with Higgins and Mo (Michael Mulheren, David Patrick Kelly), an adorable, aging gay couple on a mission to renew their wedding vows in all 50 states, and Manuel (Danny Bolero), an even more adorable Peruvian widower tamale vendor who impulsively takes Beatriz up on her offer to be their driver.  

Hudes' episodic book shifts wildly in tone, consistent only in its inconsistency and lack of credibility, while McKeown's pop-rock score (Hudes collaborated on the lyrics) features unmemorable ditties such as "Bibliography" and "Tamales," the latter an ode to the life-affirming effects of the traditional dish. Only the soaring title number, powerfully sung by Jimenez near the conclusion, succeeds in being emotionally stirring.

Director Lear deBessonet's minimalist production — performed on a mostly bare stage featuring a few stools and rows of chairs in the back on which the rest of the ensemble sits throughout — proves visually uninteresting, although the final image of a large wall bisecting the playing area packs the expected punch.

The 10-person ensemble works hard to bring heart to the material, and they often succeed. The supporting players, several of whom play multiple roles, are fine, especially veterans Mulheren and Kelly, who enjoyably milk their characters' peccadillos for all their comic worth. But it's Rubin-Vega and Jimenez who truly excel, investing their passionate turns with a moving intensity that makes you come to care about the fate of Beatriz and Olivia.

Miss You Like Hell, which has been several years in development and premiered in 2016 at the La Jolla Playhouse, certainly has an urgent timeliness in light of recent events. But this meandering theatrical road trip takes too many detours to be as effective as you wish it to be.

Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Marinda Anderson, Danny Bolero, Andrew Cristi, Latoya Edwards, Shawna M. Hamic, Marcus Paul James, Gizel Jimenez, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Mulheren, Daphne Rubin-Vega
Book & lyrics: Quiara Alegria Hudes
Music & lyrics: Erin McKeown
Director: Lear deBessonet
Choreographer: Danny Mefford
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Jessica Paz
Presented by The Public Theater