Miss You Like Hell, world-premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse, tells the reunion of Beatriz and her estranged daughter Olivia. They ride a beat-up blue Datsun pickup from Philadelphia to Yellowstone National Park. On the stage, the truck straddles the white lines of a two-lane road. Fortunately, they meet no cars coming the other way. Though the musical has much to recommend, and the production boasts voices to beat the band, Miss You has yet to straddle its various lanes to good effect.
Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book for the Tony Award–winning musical In the Heights. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful (one of the decade’s best plays), and was a Pulitzer finalist for the recent Daphne’s Dive. Compared to these works, Miss You aims for a much broader canvas. Beatriz and Olivia run the entire zodiac of mother/daughter relations. Drama abounds, but also blog fests, lists and lists of famous writers, a gaggle of eccentrics collected along the way — and Robinson Crusoe singing songs on an island with one palm tree. And Alan Ginsberg, white hair and beard, zipping across the stage in a wagon-sized yellow car.
The musical, in other words, is all over the map.
The story would have been different if Olivia’s Anglo father had married Beatriz 16 years ago. Beatriz could have become a U.S. citizen and much more of an influence on acutely sensitive Olivia. Instead, after a bitter breakup and custody scream-out, Beatriz became an absent mother, off to who-knows-where.
Olivia’s so alienated, she blogs about castaways (which may explain Robinson Crusoe, at least some) and has a wide following. Though she had her first sex at 12 — four years before her free-spirited mother — Olivia lives in her head (Beatriz calls her a “zombie from the neck down”). She favors literature over life, and name-drops an author for every tear she refuses to cry.
One writer resonates. In a letter, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote: “Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling into at night. I miss you like hell.”
In Olivia’s mind, her mother must have fallen through that hole and has become, at best, vaguely recalled fragments. Olivia must join them into some kind of whole before she can forgive the woman who abandoned her. Or have to invent one.
The playwright calls Miss You a literary road trip for women. But it’s more like a crazy pilgrimage to an unknown shrine. Each person the duo meets has a cause. Materialism so horrifies Mindy, a castaway blogger, she sings “Eat You Up,” about the Golden Arches eager to do just that. Mo and Higgins, septuagenarians, celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in state after state. And Manuel, a Peruvian-American in South Dakota, sings the graceful “Tamales” as a mouth-watering recipe and a means of seduction.
In the midst of this Noah’s Ark of diversity, Beatriz has two problems. She must not only win back her daughter, she also faces deportation. Many years ago she committed a misdemeanor with marijuana. She needs a judge to clear her record to have a clean slate at her final immigration hearing in Los Angeles.
As Beatriz, Daphne Rubin-Vega pours fire into “Over My Shoulder,” a deeply felt number about “La Migra” and undocumented life in America — soon to become an anthem? Rubin-Vega piles ache on confusion on defiance, and builds Beatriz’s desperation step by painful step. One of the most arresting parts of her multi-sided performance: you can’t predict which side — or, more likely, what new one — will come next.
Krystina Alabado’s sheltered Olivia has a narrower range (when they flee Philadelphia at 4 a.m. she tells her mother, “It’s like being flattered and kidnapped all at once”). Olivia’s only solace, it seems, is knowing she’s not the world’s only outsider. The rest she can’t define.
Much of Act One has a Humpty Dumpty, pick-up-the-pieces quality. It may know where it’s headed but assumes the audience does, too (a better sound mix might help clarify). Although it moves from east to west, the musical forks in different directions: the deeply emotional mother/daughter struggle (and life-changing topics they confront); and a road show, part real, part fantasy, mostly comic relief. It’s clear the author wants a wide scope. But the often cute and cartoony fantasy undercuts the drama. It’s as if Miss You were two musicals running in repertory.
Erin McKeown’s eclectic score serves the concept, but not always the story. Some songs play like rest stops far from the main road. Donyale Werle’s set (and uncredited projections) integrates loose ends effectively. Tall shiny bars could be the pillars of a Greek temple, the cell of a prison, or even a cowcatcher across a country road. Emilio Sosa’s costumes range from the humble everyday to the downright bizarre. Say, wasn’t that Marilyn Monroe in her famous white, Seven Year Itch, multi-pleated dress about to be blown skyward by a subway grate?
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Miss You Like Hell, book and lyrics by Quiara Alegria Hudes, music and lyrics, Erin McKeown
Directed by Lear De Bessonet; cast: Krystina Alabado, Cliff Bemis, Victor Chan, Vanessa A. Jones, David Patrick Kelly, Julio Monge, Cashae Monya, Kurt Norby, Olivia Oguma, Daphne Rubin-Vega; scenic design, Donyale Werle; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; music director, Julie McBride; choreographer, Danny Mefford
Playing through December 4; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at
8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.