Immigration, parental absence and cyber-relationships all figure in to the road trip musical “Miss You Like Hell,” an earnest — and now very Trump-topical — show that too often gets stuck in a traffic jam of multiple themes, characters and storylines. The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Water by the Spoonful” and the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights,” has the same longing spirit of both of those tenderhearted shows. Now playing at Off Broadway’s Public Theater after a premiere in late 2016 at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, “Miss You Like Hell” — an exploration and refinement of Hudes’ earlier play “26 Miles” — is overstuffed with ideas and incidents that don’t add up to a sweeping, satisfying whole.
Long-absent mom Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega) unexpectedly arrives at the doorstep of her 16-year-old, half-Latina daughter Olivia (Gizel Jiménez), who is living with her father in Philadelphia. Beatriz wants her to go on a weeklong road trip for some much-deferred mommy time, but Olivia, with her heart broken too many times by the mother who abandoned her, is understandably wary.
Beatriz is concerned about her daughter’s dark demeanor, especially after reading the blog by the literature-loving Olivia, “Calling All Castaways,” which reveal hints of suicide.
Unbeknownst to Olivia is the fact that this cross-country journey has another purpose: The trip will end in an immigration hearing for the Mexico-born Beatriz, and where the daughter’s testimony could help her mother from being deported.
But the show almost stalls just as it begins, starting with Beatriz’ sketchy 4 a.m. arrival, the vagueness of Olivia’s unseen father, and the too-quick-to-be-true acceptance of the road trip invite.
The human touches of the mother-daughter dynamic are the most appealing part of the show. Rubin-Vega (Tony-nominated for “Rent” and “Anna in the Tropics”) is fierce and funny as the hard-driving, quick-witted mother, while still owning her character’s many imperfections. Jiménez gives a break-out performance as the damaged daughter, who finds solace with like-minded millennials on the internet. She treads the line between self-possessed toughness and walking-wounded with complete authenticity.
In the tradition of road trip narratives, mother and daughter encounter colorful characters (including a retired gay couple with a mission of their own, played with quirky charm by David Patrick Kelly and Michael Mulheren) as well as hardships and setbacks (car problems, an arrest, clearing up an old marijuana misdemeanor).
The production, staged by Lear deBessonet, is low-tech to a fault, with an undistinguished set, basic choreography/movement and minimal use of an ensemble. However, singer-songwriter Erin McKeown makes an impressive stage debut with music that is eclectic and appealing, though the lyrics she co-wrote with Hudes are too often an odd mix of fleeting grace and awkwardness.
Still, there’s some lovely melodies, including Rubin-Vega’s “Over My Shoulder;” “Tamales,” sung with tenderness by Danny Bolero as a widower they encounter along the way; and “Yellowstone,” sung by Latoya Edwards, a devoted fan follower of Olivia’s lonely-teen blog and who becomes a side-trip destination. And by the end, it’s hard not to be moved by the newly earned parent-child bond, by lessons learned on a road well-traveled and, ultimately, by walls that stand in the way of loving families.