No institution has done more to keep musical theater vital in the twenty-first century than the Public Theater, which over the past fifteen years has given us Caroline, or Change, Passing Strange, Here Lies Love, Fun Home, and a little show about a founding father who wasn’t throwing away his shot. It’s also served as an incubator for various other notable examples of the form. So there were a number of reasons to believe that Miss You Like Hell — the admirable, full-hearted, and underwhelming musical now making its New York premiere at the Public — would be its latest success story.
Miss You combines the talents of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (a Lin-Manuel Miranda collaborator, pre-Hamilton) and singer/songwriter/activist Erin McKeown, who wrote the book and music, respectively, while co-writing the lyrics. Their story — that of an undocumented Mexican immigrant and mother trying to avoid deportation and bond with her estranged daughter by a white American man — could hardly seem riper for exploration, particularly when told by two proudly feminist artists who share an affinity for outsider perspectives. The production’s director, Lear deBessonet, is also a woman, and one whose flair for using music to convey both intensity and whimsy informed a magical Midsummer Night’s Dream staged by the Public just last year.
Yet for all its invocations of spirits and myths, Miss You strangely lacks a sense of magic. The tale begins in Philadelphia, where Beatriz, the mom — a star vehicle for Daphne Rubin-Vega, who invests the role with unbending conviction — has traveled from California to persuade sixteen-year-old Olivia, whose father is her sole custodian, to join her on a road trip back West. Olivia has just contemplated suicide on her blog, Calling All Castaways, and Beatriz is ostensibly there to help heal “my Shakespeare Patti Smith Pablo Neruda of a daughter.”
Literary and cultural references play a substantial role in how the women define themselves and each other. For the brooding, unkempt Olivia, books and art have become a refuge and a weapon to wield in self-defense or with dramatic intent; in a song called “Bibliography,” she calms herself by listing favorites from Keats and Rilke to Goodnight Moon, while Beatriz channels Chavela Vargas in song and brings up her Yaqui heritage and bohemian past. Mother and daughter recall the first time they saw Rubens’s Prometheus Bound in a museum, and Olivia relates to the Titan in feeling that her attacker has returned.
Such citations ultimately do little to make either Olivia or Beatriz more interesting as individual women outside their topical struggles. It emerges that Beatriz has enlisted her daughter, in part, to persuade a judge to let her remain in the United States, despite a criminal record stemming from a long-ago misdemeanor, for marijuana possession. Olivia, angry at her mother for not fighting harder to retain custody of her years back, feels freshly stung by the woman she has labeled “the Michelangelo of self-interest.”
Their journey plays out on a virtually bare stage, with audience members seated to the left and right and musicians behind them, sometimes joined by company members. McKeown’s score and the orchestrations she has crafted with Charlie Rosen reinforce both the intimacy of the staging and the musical’s pan-American reach, stirring folk, blues, jazz, and rock into songs that, to Hudes and McKeown’s credit, help fuel the narrative rather than merely embellish it. Ironically, given the weighty issues addressed, the most compelling tunes are the gentler, breezier ones, such as the sweetly soulful “Yellowstone” — an homage to the national park, which Olivia insists on visiting en route — and Olivia’s melancholy memory song “Sundays.”
The latter is delivered in a clear, shimmering voice by Gizel Jiménez, who as Olivia sustains a convincing and often poignant rapport with Rubin-Vega’s Beatriz, despite mother-daughter exchanges that can, aside from the name-drops, seem surprisingly banal at points. (“Are you ever hugged?” Beatriz asks during their inevitable conversation about sex, after Olivia brags about her multiple encounters.) Members of the ensemble also have memorable turns, among them Latoya Edwards, who sings sublimely as a Yellowstone guide who’s a fan of Olivia’s blog (and whose posts are quoted intermittently), and Danny Bolero as a kind widower who offers help to Olivia and Beatriz, along with a spark of romance for the latter.
Miss You’s emphasis on inclusion is augmented by a more developed love match, between a Vietnam veteran and his longtime male partner, endearingly played, respectively, by Michael Mulheren and David Patrick Kelly. There are references to the borders we build to protect ourselves, in relationships and on land, and how we can rise above them. For all its flaws, Miss You Like Hell appeals genuinely and sometimes movingly to our sense of compassion and capacity for hope; you just wish the musical were as transcendent as the message.