The effort of a mother to cement a relationship with her estranged daughter and the horrors of immigration crackdowns are blended into a touching, lively musical in “Miss You Like Hell,” with book and lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes and music and lyrics by Erin McKeown. The show, as you can see, taps strongly into contemporary concerns.
The stage set-up is unusual for the Newman Theater at the Public. Audience members are seated on either side of the stage in addition to the audience in front, with supporting performers seated in the rear of the stage and stepping forward into the action when needed. Thus the scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez is a simple one for most of the way, but the creation of a wall, both realistic and symbolic, provides a stunning scenic climax that evokes the present even though the story is set four years ago.
The mother, Beatriz, played by the excellent Daphne Rubin-Vega, has been estranged from her daughter, Olivia, whom she lost in a custody battle, and is living in California. Olivia is portrayed by the intriguing, interesting looking and talented Gizel Jiménez. Beatriz unexpectedly shows up in Philadelphia, where Olivia lives with her father, but is greeted with extreme hostility by her resentful daughter, who has felt abandoned. Olivia has a blog and has given indications of contemplating suicide.
Beatriz persuades her daughter to go on a road trip west and in the process she hopes to forge a new relationship. There is also an ulterior motive. Beatriz, from Mexico, is in the U.S. illegally and she will want her daughter to testify for her in a pending hearing that could result in her deportation. Olivia at first doesn’t know the danger her mother is facing, and when she learns of her mother’s plan, she rages at being used.
The beauty of the show, enhanced by the lead performances, is how well the songs are integrated into the plot and how effectively supporting characters are brought into the story. For example, there is the homosexual couple, charmingly played by Michael Mulheren as Mo and David Patrick Kelly as Higgins. The men befriend Beatriz and Olivia, and inject some musical fizz. There is also the tamale vendor, Manuel (Danny Bolero), whom Beatriz co-opts as a useful helper. Marinda Anderson is effective as Beatriz’s lawyer.
Songs include “Sundays,” “Mothers,” “My Bell’s Been Rung,” “Over My Shoulder,” “Tamales” “Now I’m Here,” and the title one, “Miss You Like Hell,” as well as others, and they are sung meaningfully and, which is important, entertainingly. Director Lear deBessonet integrates story and music smoothly, and the show is brightened by Danny Mefford's choreography. Despite some weak spots here and there, this is a work with originality and heart and appearing just at the right time. At the Public Theater, 425 Layfayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed April 11, 2018.