Erin McKeown and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ new musical, “Miss You Like Hell,” premiered on March 20 at the Public Theater — the “of, by and for the people” Astor Place staple that served as a springboard for smash hits like “Hamilton” and “Fun Home.” The refreshingly original show realizes the often untold story of a mother-daughter relationship.
“Miss You Like Hell” follows a week-long road trip from Pennsylvania to California, and the struggle of a mother-daughter due to embrace their past for the duration of the ride. Daphne Rubin-Vega — whose unique voice “Rent” fans will immediately recognize as Mimi’s — plays Beatriz, an outspoken Mexican mother who feels a deep connection to her roots across the border. Gizel Jiménez plays 16-year-old Olivia, Beatriz’s witty daughter with an angsty online blog. When the show begins, Olivia and Beatriz have not seen each other for years, as Beatriz left Olivia for California after a messy separation with her father. The deep-seated resentment lodged in the minds of both women comes to the surface as they travel in Beatriz’s truck. They grapple with Olivia’s childhood, her parents’ divorce, the fact that Beatriz crossed the border without documentation upon entering the United States and the complicated role mothers play in their children’s lives.
Rubin-Vega plays the overbearing, over-caring Beatriz exceptionally well. She poignantly depicts the conflict mothers face when weighing their own interests against their children’s, and her performance in songs like “Over My Shoulder” is relevant and heartbreaking, as Beatriz must come to terms with potentially losing access to the country she calls home.
Jiménez is perfectly irritating in her portrayal of Olivia, who loves James Baldwin, wears pajamas to class and thinks of herself as a castaway. Jiménez is able to convey Olivia’s teenage naivety well in both her singing and way of speaking.
In contrast to the deep dive McKeown’s music takes into this rare onstage relationship, it only briefly examines Olivia’s depression. The song “Bibliography” showcases Olivia signing each letter of the alphabet, backwards, while she recites a book she has read that starts with each. She often describes her dependence on books as a means of escape, and we learn that she attempted suicide. A blog post alluding to this attempt is what led Beatriz to frantically travel across the country to find Olivia.
The wide variety of musical presentation in “Miss You Like Hell” keeps the show alive, with the likeable Mo and Higgins — two old, married men the women meet in a motel parking lot — dancing to“My Bell’s Been Rung,” and Pearl — a fan of Olivia’s blog and a young park ranger-in-training — grooving to the song “Yellowstone.” The theme from “Prayer (Lioness),” the show’s empowering opening number, remains present throughout the show. McKeown and Hudes’ creative prowess is evident throughout Olivia and Beatriz’s journey.
Director Lear DeBessonet creates memorable images on the Newman Theater’s small stage, such as the resonant last moment of the show which places Olivia and Beatriz on separate sides of the border wall, hands reaching for one another.
The new musical’s ensemble features eight actors and actresses, of many ages and races, who step into secondary roles along Beatriz and Olivia’s journey. While not playing parts such as the Lawyer or the Motel-Desk Guy, the actors remain seated at the back of the stage, providing occasional vocal accompaniment for the two leads. The band is also situated at the back of the stage.
Themes of love, strength and forgiveness underline “Miss You Like Hell.” Motherhood and independence are put at odds with each other in Beatriz’s story; young Olivia is forced to come of age as her mother is forced to face court and fight to obtain legal status in the United States. Relevant and well-written, this new musical takes on a complicated story with great success, and its vibrant music will stay with audience members long after they exit the Public onto Astor Place.
Email Emily Fagel at [email protected]
Correction Tuesday, April 25: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the last name of Quiara Alegría Hudes as “Hughes.”