But, despite a pair of winning lead performances and a rich, eclectic score from folk rocker Erin McKeown, “Miss You Like Hell” often loses its way. Hudes fills the plot with discussion of suicide, faith and sexuality, but doesn’t fully unpack any of those topics. Director Lisa Portes overpopulates the stage with performers who are largely squandered on overindulgent choreography or, in a half-baked thread, scenes visualizing the online community tracking Olivia’s blog.
Some of these actors do get meatier supporting roles. The trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where Beatriz hopes Olivia will testify as a character witness in her deportation hearing, includes encounters with a parade of benevolent strangers. Carlos L. Encinias brings warmth and humor to Manuel, a widowed South Dakota tamale peddler. As park ranger Pearl, the exceptional Kayla Gross performs the R&B jam “Yellowstone” with sultry soul. Yet these detours play more like amusing diversions than necessary plot points. Bradley Mott and Lawrence Redmond may delight as an older gay couple on a quest to get married in all 50 states, but their boisterous number, “My Bell’s Been Rung,” feels like it was yanked from a different musical.
When the two leads are at the wheel, however, this production hums along nicely. Alers brings endless energy to Beatriz, a free spirit still consumed with guilt over events that pulled her away from her daughter. Vocally, she effortlessly carries her early showcase, “Mothers,” a toe-tapping celebration of maternal devotion. As the sardonic, bookish Olivia, Morales embarks on an arc of self-discovery that culminates in her aching performance of the show’s title song.
The story unfolds on Milagros Ponce de León’s colorfully patterned, multitiered set. The scenic designer’s most striking contribution is saved for the final moments, when a set transformation powerfully tethers “Miss You Like Hell” to the current immigration conversation. Ultimately, this is a timely show about the fickle bureaucracy that pulls families apart, and the human connections that transcend such barriers. With such a worthy end point, one wishes Hudes had just mapped out a smoother route.
Miss You Like Hell, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, music and lyrics by Erin McKeown. Directed by Lisa Portes. Set, Milagros Ponce de León; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Pablo Santiago; sound, Matt Rowe; projections, Thomas Ontiveros; music direction, Walter “Bobby” McCoy; choreography, Breon Arzell. With Jyline Carranza, Jay Frisby, Olivia Ashley Reed, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Michael Wood. About 1 hour 45 minutes. $42-$84. Through March 1 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org.