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A CurtainUp Review
Miss You Like Hell

"I missed you like hell. . . Where's my hug?" — Beatriz to the girl she has not seen in four years.
Daphne Rubin-Vega(photo by Jim Carmody)
Daphne Rubin-Vega's musical theater career contains some significantly depressing roles. Between her white-hot arrival as the doomed S&M dancer Mimi inRent to Fantine in the revival of Les Miserables. Aa decade later, you kind of feel like the lady might enjoy playing someone who gets to actually, well, live!

She gets that role, and she kinda doesn't, in Miss You Like Hell the new musical written by composer Erin McKeown and librettist/lyricist Quiara Alegria Hudes in its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. In truth, anything fresh off the keyboard of Hudes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Water by the Spoonful is worthy of attention, and Rubin-Vega (who appeared Off-Broadway in Hudes's Daphne's Dive) may well be an actor that Hudes has in mind when she creates new characters. Playing a free-spirited Puerto Rican mother who embarks on a we-bond-or-else roadtrip with her 16-year-old daughter, Rubin-Vega is as powerful an enticement for the work as anything else director Lear deBessonet has put on the stage.

Is this star's presence enough? Does Hudes and McKeown's kookified glass-more-than-half-full vision of a splintered America have legs to take it beyond a run at the Playhouse, a venue that has launched a ton of new musicals? One can only wonder. Miss You Like Hell, though timely, doesn't exactly scream commercial hit.

We have a female-driven play set against the backdrop of the immigration conundrum featuring an estranged mother and daughter who go looking for buffalo and discover plenty of love and compassion sometimes in the oddest of places. In addition to Rubin-Vega and a very appealing Krystina Alabado as her daughter, deBessonet's nine-member company is peopled with actors who are all ages and multi-ethnic. McKeown's score is an unconventional mishmash of styles featuring songs about lionesses and gay marriage. And may we reserve you a single seat or a pair, Mr. president-elect?

Curtain up on a set piece (designed by Donyale Werle) that looks rather like an enormous heating vent which pulls back to reveal Olivia (Alabado) a messy, gangly teen who is in bed reaching out to the blogosphere whom she calls castaways. Olivia is interrupted from her musical reverie by a tap on her window. Her biological mother Beatriz (Rubin-Vega) has driven a beat-up Datsun across the country to Philadelphia to shuttle her daughter back to L.A. in time for a court appearance. "I missed you like hell," Beatriz says to the girl she has not seen in four years. "Where's my hug?"

From the age of 4, Olivia was raised largely by her father. Beatriz never battled for custody and eventually jettisoned her weekend visits as well. Olivia's dad, whom we never meet, is an intellectual and a pothead. She is aching, disaffected and resentful as all get-out at the woman she calls not "mom" but Beatriz. But, still in her pajamas, she gets into that car anyway.

As much as she clearly loves and needs her daughter back in her life, Beatriz is also operating with an ulterior motive. Facing a court date and potential deportation, she also needs a character witness. A noncommittal Olivia demands that the trip include a stop at Yellowstone National Park where one of the castaways (Cashe Monya) works as a park ranger. And off the two plunge into America's heartland encountering individuals who are both real and symbolic.

I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be Allen Ginsberg (a pixie-ish David Patrick Kelly) riding a miniature car, pulling out juggling balls and giving an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the literature-embracing teen Mindy (Olivia Oguma), a new castaway with whom Olivia bonds in an Ohio mall. We will see no more of Mindy, but Kelly is back a few scenes later playing Higgins who along with partner Mo (Cliff Bemis), is on an odyssey of his own: to renew their wedding vows in all 50 states. Our travelers encounter the men at an Indiana diner, and they nearly end up shutting the place down. By intermission, a now-sold Olivia is resolved to testify for her mother. Once we reach Act 2, Hudes has hit her young heroine's reset button and all of Olivia's doubts ("What was I thinking?") have returned.

As the road unwinds and we draw closer to the actual destination, McKeown's funky and folkie score nicely threads the narrative. The composer follows a lovely ballad from a gentle tamale salesman (played by Julio Monge) with a stirring empowerment anthem. The songs are every bit in Rubin-Vega's wheelhouse, and the performer &emdash; her voice simultaneously whiskey- soaked and girlish &emdash; brings off the numbers every bit like the pro she is.

With the exception of the finale song, "Castaway," there are no show-stopping numbers. Miss You Like Hell's scope is both personal and sociological. There are lightly-flawed people, but no villains, and only the mother and daughter have any real dramatic weight on their bones.

Fortunately, the two leads know what to do with them. Alabado makes Olivia's isolation palpable. As shut-down and angry as the character could be, Alabado shows us a teen who is more apt to reach out to other people than to erect barriers. The resolution is perhaps not entirely earned, but Miss You Like Hell would be hugely sour without it.

With maroon streaks in her hair, ripped denim and an artsy peasant blouse, Rubin-Vega burrows comfortably into the skin of, yep, a flawed fortysomething bohemian. Rent's ridiculous ending notwithstanding, Mimi Marquez likely never had the chance to survive past her early 20s. Still, Mimi would have liked Beatriz, a lady who, even when she has hit rock bottom, knows how to be the life of any party.

One more note about Quiara Alegria Hudes: it is positively criminal that Los Angeles will not see the first professional production of Water by the Spoonful until January of 2018. Spoonful is a play about individuals who are even more adrift and separated by far greater distances than the denizens of Miss You Like Hell. That's something to look forward to, perhaps, but my goodness, a year is a long wait.

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Miss You Like Hell
Book and Lyrics by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Music by Erin McKeown
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Cast: Krystina Alabado, Cliff Bemis, Victor Chan, Vanessa A. Jones, David Patrick Kelly, Julio Monge, Cashae Monya, Kurt Norby, Olivia Oguma, Daphne Rubin-Vega
Music Director: Julie McBride
Scenic Design: Donyale Werle
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Choreography: Danny Mefford
Production Research: Meghan Malya
Stage Manager: Evangeline Rose Whitlock
Plays through December 4, 2016 at the La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla. (858) 550-1010,
Running time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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