Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Miss You Like Hell
In their 2016-premiering musical, Miss You Like Hell, Quiara Alegría Hudes (book and lyrics) and Erin McKeown (music and lyrics) send a troubled teenage, mixed-race girl and her estranged, undocumented, Mexican-born mother across the country in a borrowed red jalopy truck. Their version of this American tradition is one that has rarely been produced on paper or stage–a trip through the freeways and back roads of America by someone other than whites. In co-production with Teatro Visión, City Lights Theater Company is presenting a rousing, compelling and moving Miss You Like Hell that in the end provides a stomach-wrenching punch to bring home to us all, the current, devastating effects of our broken immigrant policies and practices.
After having no contact with her sixteen-year-old daughter for four years, Beatriz shows up one morning outside the Philadelphia home where Olivia lives with her white father. With a demeanor more of command than ask, he insists that the unamused girl come back to California with her in a beat-up truck on a one-week trip across the U.S.
Olivia responds that the invitation is "like being flattered and kidnapped at the same time," to which her mother says, "A woman can't kidnap her own child ... The universe doesn't work that way." And while Olivia's quick, under-breath retort is, "The legal system does," she puts a few things in her backpack and jumps in the front seat reluctantly–especially when her mother reveals that she rushed across the continent after seeing a posting on her daughter's popular blog in which Olivia raised her shirt to ask of her readers the belly-written question of "Should I jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge?"
The journey's beginnings are an experience of jolting bumps and sudden curves that have little to do with the road conditions. Beatriz cannot believe the unkempt nature of her baggy-clothed, purple-haired, and seemingly unbathed daughter (stopping at the first convenient CVS to buy new underwear, mouthwash, and odor eaters). She reminds her daughter that she should have more pride in herself as a descendant of the Yaqui tribe of the Mascogo Indians ("Your blood runs deep and it is your blood"). Olivia, already having reminded Beatriz (she refuses to call her "Mom") that she has long been an absent mother, responds, "If Mexico is so profound, then go back already." The tension in both car and cheap motel rooms continues through the first few states to be thicker than road dust.
And it only gets worse when Olivia discovers that the real reason her mother has come to get her is to ask her to be a character witness at her upcoming court hearing the next week in L.A. that will determine if she gets to stay in the country or is to be deported. Beatriz needs someone to prove "that I belong here, that I contribute." Indignant that the mother who left her abandoned for so long dares to ask such a favor, Olivia answers defiantly, "No, as in fuck no ... You're garbage."
And the two are only in Indiana.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegría Hudes has this time chosen music to be part of the medium to depict this transformative trek across the country that mother and daughter undertake under the beginning miles of visible duress. Erin McKeown's music–country, rock, folk ballad, western, rap, and even Broadway in nature–reflects the eclectic, wide-ranging places they pass and visit, from cityscapes to strip mall pull-overs to back-country dots on a map to the breath-taking scenes of Yellowstone.
The pair's lyrics vary in their ability to move the story forward in a way that is additive to the powerful book Hudes has written (especially when occasional rhyming schemes of some songs do more to weaken than strengthen the messages). On the other hand, there are songs with music and lyrics that blend together to leave lasting impressions core to the final messages of the musical. Kudos go to music director and keyboardist Samuel Cisneros and the other four band members for their overall excellent delivery of the night's varied score.
Most impressive in both their acting and their musical abilities is Alycia Adame (who prefers the pronouns they/them), as the sometimes belligerent, sometimes incredibly reflective, sometimes suddenly and surprisingly funny and endearing teenager, Olivia. From their first song, "Sundays," in which Olivia remembers fondly of early, childhood days she spent with her mother, Alycia Adame time and again sings with a voice clairvoyant in tone, contagious in its energy, and captivating in its youthful nature while always showing a depth of interpretation that is impressive. Books, which Olivia says, "have been my passport to the world" are recited by author and title, "z" to "a," in Bibliography, revealing a panic-induced technique she uses to deal with heightened anxiety (including simply saying over and again the alphabet backwards).
As she tries to convince herself, "I stopped needing her [i.e., her mother] a long time ago," Olivia takes a step-by-step transformative journey through her own pent-up resentments, doubts about her mother's true feelings, and teenage stubbornness to let go and move on. When she arrives on the Pacific coast to sing the final ballad, "Miss You Like Hell," the former girl is now a young woman who sings to her mother in a powerful voice guaranteed to bring tears, "You are my history; you are my recipe; you are my family." For Olivia, the great road trip has done its job even if the destination is not where she most wanted to land.
As Beatriz, Jessica Osegueda continually provides a riveting portrait of a very complicated woman whose past with some early missteps and bad judgments looms over her but whose love of a daughter she abandoned becomes more and more the road to recovery. Not always consistent in her delivery of her allotted songs–sometimes tending to ever so slightly go flat in tone–her Beatriz does score powerfully and effectively when she sings "Over My Shoulder," one of the night's most important songs. With its country/western blend, the number is a graphic description what it is like for an undocumented person to exist over a number of years–in Beatriz's case, eighteen–as "a stranger at home looking over my shoulder ... treading water waiting for the tide to rise." Like so many thousands like her, she sings repeatedly with a gnawing realization bordering on resignation, "I'm just one slip away." Jessica Osegueda succeeds in embedding in our memories the face and heartbreaking story of a person who has too long been an outcast in her own family as well as in her adopted country.
Beatriz and Olivia are greatly aided by the people they meet along their way in their own journey to become mother and daughter more than just in memory. As an older, gay couple who are on a quest to marry in all fifty states, Joel Butler as Mo and Ken Boswell as Higgins provide both comic relief and unconditional love and support after meeting the mother/daughter, quarreling duo. Their raspy-voiced half-sung, half-spoken "My Bell's Been Ringing" is a corny but cute toe-tapper that does nothing to advance the story but still is quite fun.
With a sweet voice reminiscent of a singer in a roadside lounge, Kennedy Dawson is Yellowstone junior park ranger Pearl (alternating the role with Naomi Evans). She is one of Olivia's faithful blog readers who becomes a guide to help Olivia manipulate the emotional valleys the fellow teen encounters in her journey to reconcile with her mother. Singing "Yellowstone," Pearl entices Olivia to "come on home for the first time," to come to a place where nature can heal and where she can "fall in love for the first time" (with a strong implication that Olivia needs to learn how to love her mother).
Another enabler of the step-by-step repair of the mother-daughter relationship is that of a tamales vendor, Manuel, whose delicious vittles and romantic vibes for Beatriz soon land him alongside the two in the truck's crowded cab. Ricardo Cortes's dreamy voice that so lightly dances over the notes of "Tamales" is only one aspect of a total performance that is another brief but welcome highlight of the evening.
Less successful musically and theatrically is the production's use of an ensemble. Too often, their contribution is less than needed nor very convincing and at times, in delivery, is simply over-sung. Lyric-wise, there is often little added by their choruses and their echoes. Much more successful are the principals' individual or paired musical numbers.
Artistic director of Teatro Visión, Rodrigo García, directs the movement and flow of Miss You Like Hell astutely and artistically in such a way to ensure that this story of a mother-daughter journey captivates an audience that is likely majority white U.S. citizens, and not personally acquainted with many/any undocumented immigrants. Once the director has the audience riding along in the backseat of the truck as heavily invested co-travelers in a family drama, director, playwright and cast combine their efforts to bring to full fruition the actual reason for our journey: to see, feel and remember the current, stark realities of undocumented immigrants, U.S. policy, and ICE directives.
While it may be legitimate to quibble a bit about certain aspects of the Hudes/McKeown musical or even of the City Lights/Teatro Visión production, in the end these two companies have combined their rich histories and capabilities to produce a Miss You Like Hell that is nothing less than a must-see evening of a story that is playing out every day for thousands of our neighbors in the immigrant communities of our country.
Miss You Like Hell runs through February 26, 2023: through February 19 at City Lights Theatre Center, 539 South Second Street, San Jose; and February 23-26 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose. For tickets and information, please visit www.cltc.org.