California may still be counting votes, but already there’s a musical responding to the new Trump era.
“Miss You Like Hell,” which is having its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, was written before the shocking victory that has staple-gunned the words “President-elect” onto the name of reality TV star Donald Trump. But the show, about the fate of a Mexican immigrant mother who reconnects with her troubled daughter in a last-ditch effort to become a naturalized citizen, humanizes a central issue in what was the ugliest presidential campaign in living memory.
Those exhausted by the partisan fray will be happy to hear that the politics of “Miss You Like Hell” are more implicit than explicit. The book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Water by the Spoonful,” doesn’t hector or grandstand, and the score by Erin McKeown, a musician with a wide-ranging American style and a passion for social justice, strives for eclectic buoyancy.
This is a road trip musical that makes America seem like the land of agreeable oddballs and delightful outcasts. The production, directed by Lear deBessonet, never loses its good humor even as the drama takes some dark turns.
Danny Mefford’s relaxed choreography puts everyday bodies (of the same diverse shapes and sizes you’ll find at the mall) in jaunty motion to a fusion of jazz, country and old-fashioned Broadway song. This is democracy in theatrical action. Unfortunately, the show hasn’t yet found its storytelling groove. “Miss You Like Hell” is an affecting yet haphazard travelogue.
Beatriz (a radiant Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her estranged 16-year-old, half-Latina daughter, Olivia (Krystina Alabado), set out on a cross-country trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Beatriz, an artist who is as freewheeling as the hot-pink streaks in her hair might suggest, shows up outside Olivia’s bedroom window in the middle of the night.
The setup, which is bit herky-jerky, has Beatriz ostensibly returning to rescue her daughter. She’s been reading Olivia’s Calling All Castaways blog, a site that appeals to alienated souls, and has come upon a post in which her daughter is contemplating jumping off a bridge.
Olivia hasn’t forgiven her mother for taking off for the West Coast and being AWOL for the last four years, even though their weekend custody visits tended to be a morose affair. She’s been mourning her mother’s absence in the adolescent way of not allowing herself to feel much of anything but anger and resentment. Beatriz wants the opportunity to earn her daughter’s forgiveness, but she also needs a favor — she has a hearing in a week about her citizenship status (she never married Olivia’s father) and has been advised to bring a character witness.
This detail emerges after the two have commenced their journey in Beatriz’s junky pickup, and it only adds to the tension between mother and daughter. The trip, which takes place in a sketch of vehicle on an antiseptic set by Donyale Werle that’s enlivened by projections, presents a vision of America in which those on the margins offer oases of welcome and empathy in a desert of convention and intolerance.
At a small town diner, Beatriz and Olivia run into Higgins (David Patrick Kelly) and Mo (Cliff Bemis), a retired gay couple who have decided to have 50 weddings in 50 states to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Beatriz, always up for a party, is thrilled to participate in number 23 — a tenuous excuse for the overextended number “In a Fix,” but musical logic is allowed to be wayward.
Most new musicals have a second act problem; “Miss You Like Hell” is one of the few that has conspicuous first act difficulties. Getting into gear takes time, but music and drama become more synchronized as the odometer racks up miles.
A chance encounter with Manuel (Julio Monge, utterly charming), a widowed tamales vender outside a courthouse in South Dakota, where Beatriz is trying to clean up an old misdemeanor, leads to romance after a musical paean to the food he lovingly sells. “Dance With Me,” a later number set at Yellowstone National Park, evokes the spirit of a block party in the great outdoors.
The push to give the show more musical oomph is sometimes contrived. A chorus line of characters — representing icons of American culture and followers of Olivia’s blog — provides incongruous backup. The atmosphere is meant to be surreal. A flash of Allen Ginsberg (Kelly again) racing across the stage in a toy car is a kicky reminder of the long tradition Americans have had of rediscovering their identity on the road. And Victor Chan as a figure named Castaway hugs everyone on stage with his powerhouse kumbaya vocals as he voices the young blogger’s secret thoughts.
Other characters, such as Mindy (Olivia Oguma), a 13-year-old fellow disaffected misfit Olivia bonds with in a shopping mall atrium, and Pearl (Cashaé Monya), a 16-year-old who works as a junior park ranger at Yellowstone and lives for Olivia’s every blog post, flesh out the communal world that helps to thaw Olivia’s frozen heart.
“Miss You Like Hell” has some of the sentimentalism of “In the Heights,” the Tony-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda musical for which Hudes wrote the book. But in the wake of this election such eccentric amiability seems therapeutically right.
The show, to its credit, resists easy answers and traditional musical uplift. America, at this whiplash turn in its history, has to sort out what kind of country it wants to be. “Miss You Like Hell” makes a tender pitch for the endangered values of understanding and inclusiveness.
The show needs further development, but it provides the best showcase for Rubin-Vega’s musical gifts since “Rent.” Beatriz is a sloppy, big-hearted character, a lover and a bungler whose past isn’t easy to sum up or account for. She could use a better introductory number than “Lioness,” but she does indeed command the stage with the sensual majesty of a wild cat.
The scenes between Rubin-Vega’s Beatriz and Alabado’s Olivia, while strained in the beginning, deepen emotionally. By the end, it’s hard not to be touched — and profoundly scared for the future of today’s immigrant family members who haven’t always played by the rules but dearly want to stay in the land they love and consider home.
‘Miss You Like Hell’
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 4
Tickets: Start at $25
Information: (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Follow me @charlesmcnulty