David Roberts, Chief New York Critic
Currently running at Theatre Row, Ma-Yi Theater Company’s “Felix Starro” launches the Company’s 30th Anniversary Season. The musical is based on Filipino-American writer Lysley Tenorio’s short story of the same name that appeared in his 2012 collection “Monstress” in which “a famous Filipino faith healer and his grandson Junior conduct an illicit business in San Francisco, though each has his own plans for their earnings.” Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo have transformed Mr. Tenorio’s “powerful and haunting” story into a musical and marks the first time ever a musical created by Filipino Americans is presented off-Broadway.
Despite the significance of Ma-Yi Theater Company’s effort, “Felix Starro” the musical loses the nostalgic undertones of Tenorio’s short story. Here the elder Felix (a diabolical and unpleasant Alan Ariano) has come to San Francisco to continue his unlawful Blessed Extraction of Negativities through psychic surgery which requires “strong, pure, fervent and absolute” faith on the part of the participant. His visit to the Filipino community in the United States is not altruistic: Felix comes to the west coast to escape prosecution in the Philippines for the same illicit “healing” procedures. Any nostalgia for his home is overshadowed in the musical by overbearing greed and abuse of his reputation and standing in his community.
Since Junior (a charming and innocent Nacho Tambunting) – Felix “the third” – was a child observing his grandfather perform psychic surgery in the Philippines, he knew his father’s father was a fraud. At ten years old, he observed his grandfather “extract” chicken parts from his subject’s abdomen while the “incision” oozed fake blood. Junior, at nineteen, was to continue in this family tradition of faith healing. However, he accompanies his grandfather to the United States with plans to remain in San Francisco, using money collected from the “healings” (at $200 a session) to secure a new identity from Filipino ex-patriot “fixer” Flora Ramirez (a cunning and convincing Ching Valdes-Aran) using the identification code “ready to buy roses” he secured in the Philippines from his girlfriend Charma (a mysterious and morally ambivalent Diane Phelan).
This morally ambiguous act (both illicit and redemptive) does not redeem the overall structure and content of the musical. The cast is uneven, perhaps resulting from their efforts to navigate the overwrought and overlong script. There are confusing scenes like the one with sex workers in the background writhing around while Charma connects to Junior telepathically. The direction by Ma-Yi’s Producing Artistic Director Ralph B. Peña is equally uneven often leaving actors in vacant spaces seeming not to know where to turn on Marsha Ginsberg’s multi-purpose set. Brandon Bieber’s choreography is robotic and bears no resemblance to his work on FX’s “Fosse/Verdon.”
One wishes the new musical successfully highlighted the parallels between the efforts of Felix and his grandson to escape their pasts and “start over.” Unfortunately, the writers seem to have taken on too much. Unwilling to let Junior’s desire for a new life in America to be heroic, his decision becomes an overworked connection to the current immigration difficulties for not only “illegal” immigrants but for all immigrants in general despite their status. For surely, Junior’s “illicit” choice does not compare to his grandfather’s deplorable misuse of authority as he convinces Mrs. Delgado (a stunning and powerful Francisca Muñoz) she is really free from all negativities, tricks the hotel maid Crystal (a broken and determined Caitlin Cisco) into thinking he “fixed” her unwanted pregnancy, and refuses to treat Bobby Santos (a fractured and resilient Ryan James Ortega) the young man suffering from symptoms of HIV/AIDS on lofty but hypocritical moral grounds.
The cast for “Felix Starro” includes Alan Ariano, Caitlin Cisco, Francisca Muñoz, Ryan James Ortega, Diane Phelan, Nacho Tambunting, and Ching Valdes-Aran.
The creative team includes Marsha Ginsberg (scenic design), Becky Bodurtha (costume design), Oliver Wason (lighting design), Julian Evans (sound design), Paulo K Tiról (orchestrations), Ian Miller (musical director), Cristina Sison (production stage manager), and Jorge Z. Ortoll (executive producer)
Performances of “Felix Starro” will take place through Sunday September 15 at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). Tickets, priced at $52.00–$102.00, can be purchased by visiting www.ma-yitheatre.org or by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission.
Photo: Ching Valdes-Aran and Nacho Tambunting in “Felix Starro.” Credit: Richard Termine.