The Public Theater, Newman Theater
425 Lafayette St. by Astor Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 13, $90
Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes tackles immigration, marijuana reform, same-sex marriage, suicide, teen sex, the blogosphere, and more in the overstuffed, underwhelming road-trip musical Miss You Like Hell, which has been extended at the Public’s Newman Theater through May 13. Daphne Rubin-Vega stars as Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant living in California who, facing a critical immigration hearing, suddenly shows up to see her sixteen-year-old daughter, Olivia (Gizel Jiménez), who lives in Philadelphia with her father. Mother and daughter have not communicated for four years; they are so estranged that Olivia calls her Beatriz, not Mom. “I miss you like hell; my bones hurt, Olivia, because you’re not at my side,” Beatriz pleads to her daughter, who at first wants nothing to do with her. Beatriz ask Olivia to drive cross-country with her to the West Coast, but Olivia is dubious of her mother’s motives. “This is weird, Beatriz,” she says. “Come after school. We’ll grab slices and get caught up.” Her mother wants more, explaining how she reads Olivia’s anonymous, very personal blog — in which she claims her mother is dead — and is concerned for her, desperate for the two of them to hit the road together. “I’m a motherless girl / I survive on my own / It’s who I am / right down to the bone,” Olivia sings. “She’s my negative space / She’s my hole in the world / The echoing empty of a motherless girl.” Olivia eventually jumps into her mother’s truck and off they go on a journey that, just as Olivia expected, is a lot more than just a mother-daughter re-bonding experience.
Jiménez (Party People, Unseamly) sings her heart out as Olivia, while two-time Tony nominee Rubin-Vega (Rent, Anna in the Tropics) is more reserved and laid back as Beatriz. The other eight members of the cast sit on green chairs in the back and occasionally come onstage to change the props and play minor roles. Riccardo Hernandez’s stage features two rows of audience members seating on either side; in between is a blue floor populated by depictions of white doves, which also fly up the walls. Most of the sets consist of tables and chairs, with a revolving center that director Lear deBessonet (Venus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) doesn’t quite know what to do with, although Danny Mefford’s (Fun Home, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) choreography has a certain charm to it. In her theatrical debut, singer-songwriter Erin McKeown’s pop score, though not particularly memorable, has a sweet innocence, and the lyrics, by McKeown and Hudes (Water by the Spoonful, In the Heights), are, for the most part, fine (best verse, sung by Beatriz: “Be with me, ancestors / Be with me, witchy witches / I call upon the feminine divine / Yo, back me up, bitches”). But Hudes’s book is disappointing. When the story strays from the relationship between mother and daughter, the play stalls; the subplots are unnecessary diversions that take away from the main narrative. David Patrick Kelly and Michael Mulheren are terrific as Higgins and Mo, a couple of gay biker dudes who are getting married in every state they can, but Hudes gives them far too much time onstage. Olivia’s desire to go to Yellowstone to meet one of the fans of her blog, Pearl (Latoya Edwards), feels forced. And the less said about the tamale episode with Manuel (Danny Bolero) the better. (In addition, Marinda Anderson plays Beatriz’s lawyer, Marcus Paul James is a police officer, and Shawna M. Hamic is a legal clerk.) Miss You Like Hell is certainly timely and can be poignant, particularly as the country debates immigration and the president wants to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, but this road trip takes too many detours before reaching its unexpected destination.