By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of a musical titled “Miss You Like Hell” is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, unless you’ve seen the work of and are a fan of plays and musicals by bookwriter/lyricist Quiara Alegría Hudes — among them ”Water by the Spoonful” (Pulitzer Prize for drama), “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue” and “In the Heights” (Tony Award for best musical).
Hudes wrote the book and lyrics of “Miss You Like Hell.”
Like characters in her other works, characters in the new musical are deeply fascinating and deeply flawed, and audiences grow to love and care about them quickly, at the same time wondering what the hell is going on from the standpoint of reality.
Unafraid of writing mother/daughter confrontations, Hudes possesses a sense of magic realism all her own. Perhaps her gifts are not for everyone, but they certainly speak to my experience of being a woman.
“Miss You Like Hell” is well supported by Erin McKeown’s music and additional lyrics, though I would like a few more melodic songs. Like so many musicals these days, the lyric-rich score contains a lot of extended recitative. The lyrics, however, are breathtaking; for instance: “You are the bread and I am the hunger” in the closing song.
The quirky work is directed by a woman, Lear deBessonet, and the music director and conductor is live-wire Julie McBride, who seems to relish the percussive elements of the score as she, plainly visible at the keyboard, leads a versatile seven-piece orchestra. Choreographer Danny Mefford is indeed male, but we forgive him because of his involvement with “Fun Home” and “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” among others.
Dance crops up all over the place, commenting succinctly on the absurd story of Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega, who created Mimi in “Rent”) and her emotionally distraught late-teen daughter, Olivia (Krystina Alabado, whose Broadway credits include “American Psycho”). We’re never certain of Olivia’s exact age because Beatriz, an undocumented Mexican national who bore Olivia in the U.S., lies whenever it is expedient. She appears in the musical’s first scene, literally abducting her abandoned, stinky, suicidal, pajama-clad daughter in order to take her to the West Coast to testify in Beatriz’s deportation hearing.
Olivia capitulates, though she is not about to give up her imaginary online correspondent named Castaway (Victor Chan, replete with palm tree and island). She wants only to see the buffaloes in Yellowstone National Park. Hopes of re-establishing a relationship with her mother are slim. The truth is, Beatriz is as dysfunctional as Olivia.
In addition to Chan, the two-hour plus musical employs an ensemble of seven, who sing, dance and portray additional characters encountered on the cross-country road trip. The most developed are Julio Monge as Manuel, a tamale vendor who assumes chauffeur duties and falls for Beatriz; and Cliff Bemis and David Patrick Kelly as an endearing, superannuated gay couple intent on marrying in every state.
Other ensemble players are Vanessa A. Jones, Cashaé Monya, Kurt Nörby and Olivia Oguma.
Standout songs are “Dance With Me,” performed by Beatriz and Olivia, and “Tamales,” which shows off Monge’s appeal and lovely voice. Equally impressive are the scenic design of Donyale Werle, costume design of Emilio Sosa, lighting design of Tyler Micoleau (lovely on-the-road sunsets), and the sound design of Dan Moses Schreier.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.