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Regional Reviews: San Diego

Miss You Like Hell
La Jolla Playhouse
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule


Krystina Alabado and Daphne Rubin-Vega
Photo by Jim Carmody
Quiara Alegría Hudes wrote a sweet, street-smart, and somewhat sentimental book for the musical In the Heights, so naturally there is considerable interest in her book for the La Jolla Playhouse-commissioned musical Miss You Like Hell. Let's just say that this time out Ms. Hudes' work is a little less sweet, as much or more street smart, and about equally sentimental. Some of the difference comes from working with Erin McKeown, as opposed to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Olivia (Krystina Alabado) is a college student in Philadelphia. She is engrossed with literature and with ideas, and she keeps a blog where she imagines herself as a castaway. One night there is a knock at the door. It is her mother Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Olivia hasn't seen her mother in several years, and she's frankly annoyed to have her turn up. But Beatriz is, if anything, a woman not to be denied (and neither is Ms. Rubin-Vega), and before long Olivia is in the car with Beatriz, heading for California.

Thus begins a kind of tale that, as Ms. Hudes points out, in literature has been the exclusive domain of men: the road trip. Yes, Olivia and Beatriz are going to learn much about each other in the days ahead, including that Beatriz is undocumented and she's hoping that Olivia will testify on her behalf at a deportation hearing. But they're also going to meet a variety of characters and perhaps understand a bit more about what it means to be an American, in all of the many forms that "American" takes.

Which means, in director Lear deBessonet's vision, that women and men of varying ethnicities, shapes and ages portray the characters Olivia and Beatriz encounter. No "limber leggy ladies" (and gentlemen) here, though they're encouraged to act like them in Danny Mefford's humorously clever choreography.

Most of the ensemble play multiple parts memorably, and sing beautifully under Julie McBride's musical direction. For the record, these fine performers are Cliff Bemis, Victor Chan, Vanessa A. Jones, David Patrick Kelly, Julio Monge, Cashaé Monya, Kürt Norby, and Olivia Oguma.

Ms. Hudes has written that Miss You Like Hell is a political piece, and I'd agree. But its politics are inherent in the story, and audiences aren't overtly encouraged to think about them (with the possible exception of the final scene, which I shall not spoil). In part, the story documents a process of making the personal political. In part, the politics emerge from the up-to-the-moment use of slang, hashtags, and the fantasy lives of college-age women. In part, they also emerge from the antics of mothers like Beatriz, those who wear the "nasty woman" label as a badge of honor.

And, in part, they're triggered by Ms. McKeown's score, which is appropriately eclectic but generally features ballads mixed with rock-influenced story songs. All of the songs have simple titles. One of the loveliest ones is "Tamales," which is performed by Mr. Monge as a story song that turns into a courting song.

Most world premiere pieces have at least some work ahead. This one seems pretty much self-contained, meaning if you're going to love it you'll really love it. If you don't love it, you may at least respect it. But, you may do neither. I'm not sure that fixes will change any of these reactions.

Miss You Like Hell at La Jolla Playhouse through December 4, 2016. Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8pm; Sun at 7pm; and Sat/Sun at 2pm, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037. Tickets are available by calling (858) 550-1010, or by visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.org.

Book and lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes, music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, directed by Lear deBessonet, and choreographed by Danny Mefford. The creative team includes Julie McBride, Music Director; Donyale Werle, Scenic Designer; Emilio Sosa, Costume Designer; Tyler Micoleau, Lighting Designer; and Dan Moses Schreier, Sound Designer.


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