“Miss You Like Hell” starts with a nervous mother blaring music out of her car radio to gather the courage to greet the teen daughter she hasn’t seen in years. It ends with a surprise, a heart-wrenching earworm of a title song and at least one audience member (me) fighting tears.
The hundred or so minutes in the middle of this tender and exuberant musical now at Baltimore Center Stage take the form of an action- and character-packed road trip. Flirtatious, vivacious Beatriz (Lorraine Velez) and her sullen, cynical daughter Olivia (Stephanie Gomérez) argue, cry, get in and out of trouble, make friends and eventually connect during a weeklong drive from Philadelphia to California.
There’s something particularly American about a road trip, and this one’s no different, even though Beatriz is undocumented and faces deportation to Mexico because of an old marijuana charge.
The two keep probing the central wound of their relationship–that Beatriz never had custody of her daughter, and eventually moved away, leaving Olivia to be raised by her white father. Olivia has every reason to distrust her, and that cynicism is soon justified.
Beatriz has returned, she tells her daughter, because she read something on Olivia’s blog that has her worried. She thinks a mother-daughter road trip will do them both good. But it soon becomes clear that Beatriz has another motive as well: She wants Olivia at her California deportation hearing to testify that she’s a good mother.
Gomérez brings Olivia to life with the perfect mix of vulnerability and studied indifference. Her voice is clear as a mountain stream, particularly for the gorgeously sad song “Sundays,” which should resonate with any child of divorce. (“Sundays, the museum was free/ We’d go, just mom and me.”)
The book and lyrics for “Miss You Like Hell” are by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who collaborated with Lin Manuel-Miranda for his massive hit “In the Heights.” Music and lyrics are by Erin McKeown, and Rebecca Martínez directs. This stellar trio of women has crafted a compelling and complex story about a mother-daughter relationship and what it means to belong.
The show shares some of the DNA of “In the Heights,” including its celebration of Latinx culture, clever wordplay and joyous sampling of musical styles. Because “Miss You Like Hell” centers on a road trip, its stories are more episodic than overlapping. But the central message, that community and family are what you make of them, resonates all the same.
The colorful, cleverly designed set is dominated by a beat-up truck that the actors frequently sit in as scenery scrolls on a screen behind them. In a blink, it changes from a dusty highway to a motel room to a parking lot.
“Miss You Like Hell” has no intermission, but even at a relatively short one hour and 45 minutes, it could have been tighter. Some of the characters and plot twists, while fun, don’t add to the story, and I would have preferred fewer full-ensemble “big numbers” and more songs that let just one or two performers shine.
Among the characters definitely worth getting to know are aging hippie bikers Mo (Michael Medeiros) and Higgins (Raphael Nash Thompson), who are traveling from state to state, getting married in each one. Their song, “My Bell’s Been Rung,” is an old-fashioned Louis Armstrong-esque pleasure, with lines like “When a thing’s been done, you can’t unthing it/ My bell’s been rung and you can’t unring it.”
Pearl (big-voiced Jaela Cheeks-Lomax), a park ranger who follows Olivia’s blog, invites the travelers to Yellowstone, a detour that helps them understand the welcoming grandeur of America’s national parks. Pearl’s song, “Yellowstone,” is a sultry ode to a physical place, suitable for a nightclub as well as a dusty mountain trail.
Of note, the play debuted in 2018 and takes place in 2014. It may seem hard to remember now, but hundreds of thousands of people were deported during the Obama presidency, including ones like Beatriz who were peacefully living in the U.S. but had minor infractions on their records.
When the play became available for a regional premiere, both Baltimore Center Stage and the Olney Theatre Center, in Montgomery County, wanted to produce it. Normally, two theaters that are physically close to each other sign non-competes that bar them from producing the same play.
But Maryland’s two official state theaters made an unusual deal. They agreed to each produce the show with their own interpretations and casts. The questions raised by the play, about who belongs and what makes a community, seem to never leave the news, and have become particularly urgent of late.
“Miss You Like Hell” packs in a fair amount of action, some great songs and plenty of characters for the traveling duo to meet at motels and in parks. But the beating heart of the play is the fractious and loving relationship between Beatriz and Olivia, both hoping for a brighter future despite the mistakes they’ve made.
These days, that seems like a lot to ask.
“Miss You Like Hell” is at Baltimore Center Stage through Oct. 13 and at Olney Theatre Center Jan. 29 through March 1, 2020.