Miss You Like Hell is something of a rarity. It is a musical that feels more realistic than many plays currently on New York stages. Its creative team is made up primarily of women, including Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book and lyrics and Erin McKeown, who wrote the music and lyrics, and director Lear deBessonet. The diversity of its ensemble and storylines is organic and unforced, and its political timeliness does not feel opportunistic. This highly anticipated musical is a gem.
The piece begins with a reunion between Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her daughter Olivia (Gizel Jiménez). After a long estrangement brought on by Beatriz’s cross-country move to Los Angeles, the mother convinces her justifiably resentful daughter to join her for an impromptu road trip: “Seven days, hija […] I wanna mommy the fuck out of my girl.” Olivia has been battling depression and posting on her blog (CallingAllCastaways.tumblr.
At least, that’s the reason the mother gives to her daughter about her sudden reemergence. In fact, Beatriz is facing deportation. She is undocumented and, because of a few puffs of marijuana sixteen years ago, will be sent back to Mexico in a week unless she can convince the judge to reconsider. A testimony from her daughter would help.
On their trip, the duo meets characters of American life who didn’t make it into Norman Rockwell’s illustrations but who encapsulate an America that today’s audience is more likely to recognize. Focus switches rapidly from one storyline to another, helped in part by Tyler Micoleau’s rhythmic lighting design. Riccardo Hernandez’s barebones set, composed mainly of chairs and a rotating central platform (and a surprise at the end), is perfectly suited for this show about borrowed time and narrowing distance.
Erin McKeown’s score is varied and moving, from Beatriz’s Joni Mitchell-esque solo “Over My Shoulder” to the title song “Miss You Like Hell”, a heartbreaking anthem of love. Danny Mefford’s choreography is simple and well-executed by the ensemble.
On their journey, the protagonists meet Mo and Higgins (Michael Mulheron and David Patrick Kelly), a charming couple on their own road trip, whose “retirement hobby” is to get married in every state. Together they sing “My Bell’s Been Rung”, a swingy duet reminiscent of Cole Porter, who never got to write an openly gay love song but would surely have been satisfied with this one.
On a detour to Yellowstone park, Olivia meets one of her fellow “Castaways”, Pearl (Latoya Edwards), who found home and solace in this historical site. Edwards sings with mature depth and brings an unexpected moxie to her role as a young park ranger.
Olivia and Beatriz’s relationship is complex and fraught. Olivia’s posture bends under the weight of her mother’s absence: a load made up of resentment, disappointment and regret. “She’s my negative space/she’s my hole in the world/the echoing empty of a motherless girl.”
Miss You Like Hell sets the bar for what a feminist piece of theater can be. Hudes’ writing is brave and deliberate. One particular scene comes to mind in which the lack of orgasm in “liberated” female teenage sexual experiences is discussed. This conversation stands out as a topic rarely tackled with such savvy and care in the theater.
These characters are flawed, personal and defy tropes so often found in musical theater. For instance, Olivia’s shaky mental health is depicted with tact — it affects her from start to finish but is not her defining characteristic. To cope with her anxiety, Olivia obsessively recites an alphabet of her favorite authors to recenter herself and “get out of her head” in the song “Bibliography”.
Jimenez is a star: imposing, radiant and grandiose. She resists the obvious angsty choices a less courageous actor might have relied on to portray a 16 year old and delivers an enrapturing performance. From her first solo (the beautiful “Sundays”) onward, she invites the audience into Olivia’s tormented life with tears in her eyes and shaky hands.
Daphne Rubin-Vega lives up to her reputation as an icon of musical theater (she is most famous for playing Mimi in the original cast of the 90s musical Rent.) She brings her biting sense of humor to the impulsive and misunderstood Beatriz.
The connection between the two leads is palpable; any scene that involves their explosive interactions is spellbinding. In particular, a single embrace before the final scene along with the lyrics “You are the bread and I am the hunger/Fill me up for one more day” encapsulates this incredible, dynamic relationship.
Miss You Like Hell runs to May 6, 2018. More production info can be found here.