Monday, May 20, 2024

Krystal Hernandez and Johanna Carlisle Zepeda in “Miss You Like Hell.” (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Company One and the A.R.T. couldn’t have picked a better time to stage “Miss You Like Hell,” a mother-daughter road trip musical by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes (who also wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning “In the Heights”) and singer-songwriter Erin McKeown. With the anti-immigrant rhetoric being spewed on a seemingly daily basis throughout the midterms and into the new year by the president and his supporters, the plight of the undocumented in this country is top of mind for many – and front and center of this flawed but entertaining work.

It’s 4 a.m. outside a home in Philadelphia when we meet Beatriz, a 40-something Latina woman, madly texting her 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, whom she hasn’t communicated with in four years. Ostensibly she is there out of concern for her daughter, who had recently posted on her popular teen blog “Castaways” that she had been planning to jump off a bridge, but we later learn she may have ulterior motives. When Olivia finally comes out to meet her, she convinces her to go on a seven-day road trip where the women can get to know each other and bond (“I want to mom the fuck out of my girl,” says Beatriz), but the plan goes off the rails from the start. Olivia is (justifiably) hurt at being completely abandoned by her mother following a custody battle, and Beatriz – despite having no real mothering skills – can’t keep herself from telling her estranged daughter how she should dress and live her life.

Raijene Murchinson is on stage and other “Miss You Like Hell” cast members are in the audience at Oberon. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Adding to the strife, we learn that Beatriz is actually on her way to a deportation hearing in Los Angeles, where a 20-year-old marijuana possession charge may send her packing back to Mexico. Hudes provides a cast of lovable supporting characters to deflect some of the tension between the two. There’s Higgins and Mo, a retired gay male couple riding their Harleys on a mission to get married in all 50 states; Manuel, a hunky but sensitive Peruvian tamale vendor who just happens to be a widower; and Pearl, a park ranger in Yellowstone who’s also a faithful follower of Olivia’s blog, and who serves as a kind of peer counselor for the troubled teen via instant messaging.

The story doesn’t flow very well, which is surprising given Hudes’ pedigree. The dynamic between Beatriz and Olivia is fairly compelling, but other plot elements hit too many dead ends. And while it’s one thing to have a main character who is (theoretically) complex, Beatriz doesn’t seem to have any genuine core. Is she a free spirit or just self-centered? Olivia nails it when she asks her mother, “Our Lady of Contradictions, how shall we pray to you?” Beatriz also seems to have a complete lack of self-awareness, as exemplified by a scene where she lectures her daughter on the dangers of giving it up too easily to boys as she is heading out the door to sleep with the tamale vendor she met that afternoon.

Thankfully, musicals are about the music, and that’s what makes “Miss You Like Hell” worth seeing. Under the superb musical direction of David Coleman, the talented cast works together beautifully, elevating even the less inspired songs to joyful levels. There are some standout numbers in the show, including “Dance With Me,” a joyous Texas two-step that brings mother and daughter together; “Yellowstone” a seductive tribute to national parks that would have been right at home on the ’70s R&B charts or “Bedtime Magic”; and the title track, “Miss You Like Hell,” which brings down the house toward the close of the show.

Director Summer L. Williams gets strong performances from the diverse cast, particularly Krystal Hernandez, who was a member of the Greek chorus in Company One’s “Wig Out!” last spring. Her characterization of the deeply hurt but snarky Olivia is as fully realized as you’re likely to see on any musical stage this year. She’s also got a great set of pipes, absolutely killing it with a heart wrenching version of the show’s title song. Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda does a credible job with the underwritten character of Beatriz, and shines in her solos (“Lioness Prelude” and the playful “Mothers”) as well as in duets with Hernandez. Raijene Murchison brings a genuinely spiritual element to her portrayal of Pearl, and her soulful vocal work on “Yellowstone” is gorgeous.

There are many comic moments in “Miss You,” but also plenty of grim reminders of the real threat of deportation that many contributing members of our society live under every day. Coupled with the genuine struggle for reconciliation we see between mother and daughter, there’s a lot to like about this piece, which is a worthy take despite its flaws. 

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