NEW YORK — High school harpies, semianimated cartoons and Bechdel test flunk-outs: Such are the uninspiring female characters populating most of this season’s new Broadway musicals.
Beatriz is a 40-ish Mexican in danger of deportation after at least two decades in the United States. As the action begins, she shows up outside the window of her estranged 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, whom she lost in a custody fight years earlier with the girl’s white, American father. (They were not married.) Beatriz doesn’t so much suggest as command that Olivia, who has written a blog post suggesting suicidal thoughts, join her on a seven-day cross-country road trip.
“Miss You Like Hell” — with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, music by Erin McKeown and lyrics by both — is partly the tale of that ride from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. And as long as it sticks to the story of a mother-daughter relationship distorted and nearly destroyed by immigration policies, it is a powerful example of what musicals do best: explore the unprotected border where individual needs and social issues intermix.
It also gives super-chewy material to the actors in the leading roles: the veteran Daphne Rubin-Vega, never better as Beatriz, and the newcomer Gizel Jiménez, eye opening as Olivia.
As you might expect from Hudes, who wrote the book for “In the Heights” and won a Pulitzer Prize for “Water by the Spoonful,” the characters are more complex than the usual musical types. Olivia is both bookish and feral, the kind of smart girl whose confusion has led to an adolescence filled with Allen Ginsberg and full-time pajamas. She cannot decide whether she is angrier at her mother for leaving her a “castaway” with her father all these years or for returning suddenly to reclaim her.
Beatriz has a more nuanced understanding of what ripped them apart, but she’s no angel. Though genuinely concerned for her daughter’s well-being, she’s a free spirit with ulterior motives she keeps secret until they reach Illinois. Olivia isn’t just being petulant when she calls her mother “the Michelangelo of self-interest” and accuses her of quasi-kidnapping.
“A woman can’t kidnap her own child,” Beatriz says. “The universe doesn’t work that way.”
“The legal system does,” Olivia retorts.
This is a fresh take on the American road story. And if, from the start, it’s clear where the ride is headed — through encounters and adventures to accommodation and rapprochement — Hudes still makes room for a conclusion that widens the perspective and encompasses great loss. Let’s just say the trip doesn’t end in Los Angeles.
But along the way, “Miss You Like Hell” too often falls short of its own ambitions. In its eagerness to spotlight the women’s present-day lives, it leaves Beatriz’s backstory seriously underdeveloped. We never learn what she does to get by — she may be an artist or a welder or both — or what really happened with Olivia’s father. That he doesn’t appear seems fair enough, but that he is vilified in absentia opens up questions the text isn’t prepared to answer.
At other times it answers questions that didn’t need to be asked. Though some of the women’s adventures are pertinent to the theme — for an unauthorized immigrant, a minor traffic stop quite naturally becomes an existential problem — too much time is turned over to diversions apparently meant to be distracting or, worse, heartwarming.
So in Skokie, Illinois, mother and daughter meet a retired gay couple (Michael Mulheren and David Patrick Kelly) who are partway through their project of getting married in all 50 states. Neither the show nor the actors seem comfortable with this cute, inorganic storyline. And a side trip to Yellowstone National Park is the kind of scene that is justified only by the authors’ needs, not by the characters’.
It’s probably no coincidence that the musical numbers arising from these detours fall flat. McKeown, a folk-rock artist who borrows liberally from many genres, has produced a full AM-FM spectrum of contextual styles, but for the most part they lack the structural underpinnings that let musical theater songs do the heavy work asked of them. The lyrics are too often wet and purple, with mushy off rhymes that are particularly problematic in up-tempo numbers (like the gay couple’s “My Bell’s Been Rung”) that need the snap of precision.
Rubin-Vega, with her rough charisma, and Jiménez, with her youthful loveliness and blue-sky voice, generally make you forget all that. I’m a bit surprised, though, that a production directed by Lear deBessonet requires such forgetting. DeBessonet, the creator of the marvelous Public Works series and the director of a bubbly production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Delacorte last summer, is usually expert at keeping tonal balance. Here she leans into rather than minimizes a tone that is often thick and even mawkish, a problem exacerbated by a physical production (by the set designer Riccardo Hernandez) that feels harshly minimal and — until a powerful, on-the-nose gesture at the end — too vague.
It may be that “Miss You Like Hell,” which evolved from Hudes’ 2009 drama “26 Miles” and had its premiere as a musical at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2016, just needs more time. Certainly events have caught up with (and in some ways outrun) its tear-jerking story, which is pre-emptively set in 2014, before the Trump presidency. But you can’t set the audience in 2014; when an officer wearing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement uniform appears onstage, everyone knows what nightmare is coming.
Of course, part of Hudes’ plan is to make us understand that people like Beatriz — whose lives have been spent, as one smart lyric has it, looking over their shoulders — always did. The rest of us are just catching up.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.