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Miss You Like Hell

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 10, 2018

Gizel Jiménez and Daphne Rubin-Vega
Photo by Joan Marcus

Could there be a better time for a new work about the plight of undocumented immigrants, along the lines of the musical Miss You Like Hell opening tonight at the Public Theater? With a book by Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and music by the talented indie singer-songwriter Erin McKeown (the pair co-wrote the lyrics), the show follows one such individual on a trip across the country with her estranged teenage daughter prior to the immigration hearing that will determine the mother's fate. Will she be allowed to stay in the U. S., or will she be deported back to Mexico?

Beatriz, a role fiercely acted if not always as well sung by Daphne Rubin-Vega, has been out of touch with her 16-year old daughter Olivia (Gizel Jiménez, a stronger singer than actress here) for four years. Suddenly, she shows up unannounced at 4 a.m. at the home in Philadelphia where Olivia lives with her unseen father. "I drove by for a visit, hija," explains Beatriz, who lives in California. "I miss you like hell; my bones hurt because you're not at my side." There is that, of course, but there is also the fact that Beatriz wants Olivia to serve as a character witness during her hearing, a piece of information Beatriz withholds until they are well on their way to the West Coast.

So off they go, the self-serving mother and the understandably surly daughter, heading west in Beatriz's rickety old truck, which she is driving while using a license in someone else's name. Along the way, they meet up with an aging gay couple, Mo (Michael Mulheren) and Higgins (David Patrick Kelly), who are on the road to fulfill their "retirement hobby" of getting married in all 50 states; Manuel (Danny Bolero), who operates a tamale cart and who joins the women for a while; and Pearl (Latoya Edwards), a junior ranger at Yellowstone National Park and a huge fan of Olivia's blog, "Castaways." Each of them has a story to tell and a song to sing, and all have a part to play in helping mother and daughter work their way toward California and toward each other.

Given the urgency and immediacy of the premise, anyone who has been moved by the wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions ought to be engrossed from start to end of the 100-minute intermissionless show. Unfortunately, this is a case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and despite some compelling performances by a game cast, Miss You Like Hell fails to deliver the goods. Instead, it is more like a typical road trip story, where people who would rather not be together wind up bonding while meeting quirky characters along the way.

I never thought I would say this about a social justice-themed show, but I actually felt under-manipulated by what I expected to be a rousing plea for compassion and a cry for equity. It's true that in real life, you don't get to choose the "poster child" to represent your cause. People are who they are, and those around whom movements are born are not necessarily ideal Mother Teresa types. But this isn't real life, and so I have to wonder why Ms. Hudes, who perhaps is best known for writing the book for the Tony-winning In The Heights, has given us the central figure of the mother as a woman who is so very much wrapped up in her own interests. Why, except as a matter of general concern, should we invest our hearts in the outcome of the deportation hearing?

Quite possibly, the biggest problem with Miss You Like Hell is that it is trying too hard to tell two different and conflicting stories. If it were to focus on Beatriz's plight, we might find her to be a more sympathetic character, a survivor with a free-spirited approach to life in the face of its many challenges. On the other hand, if it were to focus on Olivia's struggles as a sad and angry Pablo Neruda-and-Allen Ginsberg-quoting teenager who feels abandoned by her mother, we might be looking at a teenage angst musical. But as it stands, the two narratives are in conflict. I'd much rather be spending time with Mo and Higgins and Manuel and Pearl. They are not only more interesting, they also get to sing some of the better songs from the eclectic score, ones that are specifically shaped to their characters. Even for a road trip, Miss You Like Hell wanders too far off the beaten path, and the cast and director Lear deBessonet seem to have misplaced their compass.

Miss You Like Hell
Through May 13
Newman Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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