Company One’s MISS YOU LIKE HELL (ostensibly about a family divided by deportation), playing @ A.R.T.’s Oberon Club through Jan. 27th, was written by Quira Alegria Hudes first as a play; then around 2011 she began developing it as a musical at the height of President Obama’s stringent immigration policies.
Hudes is no stranger to collaboration. Her work with Lin-Manuel Miranda on IN THE HEIGHTS won them the Tony for best musical. MISS YOU LIKE HELL, with music and lyrics by singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, opened to acclaim Off-Broadway in 2018. Originally focusing on one mother’s struggle to reconnect with her daughter, in light of the current president’s attacks on immigrants, MISS YOU LIKE HELL has a whole new resonance.
You can’t watch this mother’s agony in MISS YOU LIKE HELL and not think of the three thousand children unlawfully separated from their parents and lost in the “system”—with two dead—(despite identification numbers stamped, Nazi style, on their forearms)… engineered solely to serve as a deterrent to asylum seekers.
The musical may represent one mother’s cross country journey to win back her child’s affection, but McKoewn’s songs are universal. Her urgent, plaintive I’m Just One Slip Away “treading water and waiting for the tide to rise” is a powerful, desperate anthem not just for this mother (the charismatic Johanna Carlisle-Zapeda) but for anyone fighting a lost cause.
MISS YOU LIKE HELL feels a lot like IN THE HEIGHTS because of the myriad stories which break in on the main “road trip adventure plot” (to get mother to a hearing which could lead maybe to a temporary deportation deferral). Some of the detours interrupt the momentum, detracting from the principal point of the journey: for Zapeda’s estranged mother to bond with Krystal Hernandez’ headstrong, resentful daughter.
The best songs and the best moments are the ones which center on the bonding: McKeown’s lovely country-rock Dance With Me “under the moonlight” reminded me of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lively Down at the Twist and Shout. Hernandez’ inconsolable Miss You Like Hell and mother’s ardent You Are the Bread. I am the Hunger “Fill me up for one more day” are the showstoppers. (Kudos to music director David Coleman’s nimble orchestra.)
While the rest of the musical meanders all over the map, we meet kind souls who help out (and a few unkind ones who don’t). Director Summer L. Williams and company mine the humor from the secondary stories, like the gay couple (Matthew Murphy and John O’Neil) whose goal is to get married in every state now that you can… and the daunting state trooper (Cristhian Mancinas Garcia) who could, if he wanted to, arrest mother on the spot… and the charming tamale vendor (Adrian Peguero) who seduces mother with one bite of his pie and a tasty song.
Come to think of it, though, she actually does the seducing… which is part of the musical’s undoing. She sells herself as an “earth mother,” brimming with the life force of her female ancestors, a free spirit possessing a vital spark which she wants to pass on to her daughter… but she seems rudderless and easily distracted from her mission. In point of fact, it’s Raijene Murchison as the park ranger/internet follower whose courage reunites mother and daughter, more than anything else.
The law of unintended consequences brought me right up to the present again when the park ranger sings an ode to our national parks praising their grand purpose: to be open to everyone. NOT anymore. And the ranger isn’t being paid. Perhaps that’s what MISS YOU LIKE HELL is now, not so much a mother-and-child reunion, but a stand against that horrific, useless, obscene wall.