Olney Theatre Center’s production of Miss You Like Hell explores issues of immigration policies, parental abandonment and the power of Latinx women. Lisa Portes makes her Olney Theatre directing debut with the musical’s second recent production in our area (the first was at Baltimore Center Stage last fall.) Portes gives us a powerful production that will touch audiences’ hearts.
With a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights) and a score by songwriter Erin McKeown, Miss You Like Hell is about Beatriz, an undocumented Mexican immigrant estranged from her daughter Olivia, who she lost in a custody battle to her white husband. The mother and daughter are reconnecting on a cross country road trip as Beatriz awaits her immigration trial and faces the threat of deportation after living in the U.S. for 20 years. The story is a little slow at the beginning, and a few songs could have been shortened, but it picks up as they begin to face new challenges.
Karmine Alers and Valeria Morales give true standout performances, as mother and daughter, playing their roles with heart and complexity. Alers shows us the free-spirited and passionate Beatriz in all her layers: she goes from being fun-loving and sing-songy one moment, to regretful about her past the next, to being a “lioness” and encouraging her daughter to be one too, to being afraid of making a scene because of all her years in hiding. In one beautiful moment, Beatriz gets out of the car where she has been talking with Olivia and stands in a spotlight, reflecting on all the fears she’s had about being found out. As she divulges these emotions in “Over My Shoulder,” Alers allows each moment to land.
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Morales portrays Olivia’s angst and conflicted feelings about her mother very believably. Her voice soars in “Sundays” and the titular song, displaying both power and vulnerability. She also depicts Olivia’s anxiety in songs like “Bibliography,” her panicked recitation of all of the books she’s read contrasting with the full voice she brings to the “Good Night, Moon” line that reminds her of her mother. It’s clear that Olivia was traumatized when her mother left her behind, so she tries to lose herself in books, a path that Beatriz, who read to her when she was younger, set her on.
The subplots are performed expertly by the supporting actors. Carlos L. Encinias provides tenderness and a sense of home in his portrayal of Manuel, a man who sells tamales and eventually helps Beatriz and Olivia on their journey; Kayla Gross sings her vocal runs and riffs in “Yellowstone” with ease and dexterity; and Bradley Mott and Lawrence Redmond as Mo and Higgins bring comic relief and heart in their portrayal of a gay couple trying to get married in all 50 states.
Miss You Like Hell closes March 1, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
The set (Milogros Ponce de León) and the projections (Thomas Ontiveros) complement each other nicely. The projections give a clear idea of the surroundings, from the road moving by rapidly as the car drives on with mountains and sky in the background, to Tumblr posts as Olivia writes on her blog. Yet the projections are also minimal enough to keep emphasis on the human beings on stage. The brightly colored floor with patterns makes one think of the fact that Beatriz’s culture is what grounds her, and how Olivia is learning to find that same grounding with her culture.
That sense of hope and love for life, despite looming fears of loss and abandonment, are what Beatriz and Olivia learn from each other and from everyone they meet. Their story, likewise, allows us to find the humanity in each other.
Miss You Like Hell by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown. Directed by Lisa Portes. Music direction by Walter “Bobby” McCoy. Choreography by Breon Arzell. Featuring Karmine Alers, Jyline Carranza, Carlos L. Encinias, Jay Frisby, Kayla Gross, Valeria Morales, Bradley Mott, Olivia Ashley Reed, Lawrence Redmond, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Michael Wood. Scenic design by Milagros Ponce de León. Costume design by Ivania Stack. Lighting design by Pablo Santiago. Sound design by Matt Rowe. Projection design by Thomas Ontiveros. Produced by Olney Theatre Center. Reviewed by Daniella Ignacio.