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Theater Review: “Miss You Like Hell”

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical "Miss You Like Hell."
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” - Edna St. Vincent Millay

What would you do if you were 16 and your long-absent mother knocked on your door at four in the morning to invite you on a week-long road trip?

Olivia (Krystina Alabado), the precocious Latina daughter in question, is less than ecstatic about the proposal.

She has grown up without her mother Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega) due to a long-ago dispute with her father that may soon result in her mother’s deportation. She wants Olivia to testify on her behalf at the hearing.

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the musical “In The Heights” and won a Pulitzer Prize for her Vietnam War-themed play “Water By The Spoonful,” wrote about a mother-daughter road trip in her 2009 play “26 Miles,” which has been produced twice locally.

But she always thought the piece should be a musical, so she got together with folk singer/songwriter Eric McKeown on music.

The result – “Miss You Like Hell” -- is in its world premiere through Dec. 4 at La Jolla Playhouse.

It’s clear from the tenor of the conversation that wounds of the family split have not healed, and Olivia barely knows who this person is (“I feel like I’m being flattered and kidnapped all at once,” she says).

But she sees an opportunity: she’s always wanted to visit Yellowstone National Park, and asks Beatriz to take her there.

So off they go in Beatriz’s truck – destination California – and, it is hoped, greater mother-daughter understanding. Hudes, a poetic writer, puts these words in Olivia’s mouth: “In her Datsun pickup I barrel toward Yellowstone and I’ll see a buffalo and the hole in the world may become smaller.”

Olivia figuratively takes along a gaggle readers of her computer blog entitled “Castaway,” symbolized by a character of that name played by Victor Chan, a Polynesian-looking fellow on his own little island – complete with potted palm – who sings up a storm in the eponymously-titled song.

Hudes calls this a political piece, and some parts are. Beatriz makes the case for legal status for immigrants.

Two other charming characters make another: gray-haired Mo (Cliff Bemis) and Higgins (David Patrick Kelly), celebrating their 50th anniversary with an impromptu marriage in every state (now that it’s legal).

We get to witness the latest, in a diner, presided over by the irrepressible Beatriz (who points out that “though they weren’t voted most likely to marry, their ‘friendship’ has outlasted all the breeders of Little Rock High class of ’64”) and is accompanied by a funny song called “In A Fix.”

“Miss You Like Hell” is not your typical musical. It’s a quirky little piece that offers oddball though endearing characters (Hudes calls them “strange everyday Americans”), including Beat poet Allen Ginsberg tooling around a mall in a kiddie car (for what reason, I haven’t figured out). It has some fine songs (my favorite is “Tamales,” an ode to food preparation as bonding mechanism) and some that are less so.

But when a cop stops Beatriz for a nonfunctional taillight and she can’t produce a driver’s license, things quickly turn real and sticky.

The cast is uniformly fine.

Alabado and Rubin-Vega are worthy though uncomfortable family members (I hesitate to say adversaries, but it almost seems that way) who, despite it all, want to find a way back to each other.

Bemis and Higgins are charming as the elderly repeat bridegrooms. Chan’s  lovely voice left me wanting more, both vocally and in the script.

Several other actors make fine contributions as well: Vanessa A. Jones, as Beatriz’s lawyer, Julio Monge (who sings the terrific “Tamales” song); Olivia Oguma and locals Cashaé Monya and Kürt Norby (in several roles).

The details

“Miss You Like Hell” plays through December 4, 2016 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus)

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm.; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org