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Wrestling With Faith and Family in Felix Starro

Ma-Yi Theater Company presents the world premiere of Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo's musical adaptation of a short story by Lysley Tenorio.

Alan Ariano and Nacho Tambunting try to heal what ails Francisca Muñoz in Felix Starro.
(© Richard Termine)

For the first production of its 30th anniversary season, the new musical Felix Starro, Ma-Yi Theater Company has been trumpeting the fact that it is "the first off-Broadway musical created by Filipino Americans." This is certainly a significant milestone during a time when there has been a push for broader cultural representation in the arts, especially from artists of color. (The Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love, remember, was written by two white men, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim.) And in this world-premiere production, directed by Ma-Yi producing artistic director Ralph B. Peña, it is heartening to see a talented, predominantly Filipino cast owning a stage and telling a story that feels distinctly of their culture. If only the musical itself was better.

Based on a short story by Lysley Tenorio, Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo's musical, set in 1985, centers on Junior (Nacho Tambunting), the grandson of Felix Starro (Alan Ariano), a once-popular psychic surgeon who has fallen on hard times. Both have temporarily relocated to a hotel room in San Francisco, with Felix intent on restoring his reputation after the deaths of some of his patients back home in the Philippines, where he was a TV star. Junior, however, is secretly plotting to use this trip as an opportunity to escape his home country (Ferdinand Marcos was still in power at the time) and begin a new life in the United States with his currently Manila-based girlfriend Charma (Diane Phelan). Felix Starro eventually boils down to a battle between Junior's own desire for a better life in this unfamiliar new land and his affection for his grandfather, even if he knows that his faith-healing act is a sham.

Nacho Tambunting calls on Ching Valdes-Aran for help in Felix Starro.
(© Richard Termine)

Or is it? One of the frustrations of Felix Starro lies in its wishy-washiness as to whether the man is a con artist or the real deal. Ariano's empathetic performance suggests equal parts desperation and self-delusion, with his own desire to rehabilitate his reputation possibly feeding into a firmly held belief that he's providing a valuable service for the ill. But as Hagedorn has adapted the short story, the musical seems to want to have it both ways, condemning Felix for the sake of maintaining the show's familial tensions while keeping open the possibility of the legitimacy of psychic surgery, even if just as a placebo. Felix Starro is more engaging when it focuses on Junior's attempt to establish a new existence in the US, a thread that touches on the timely issue of illegal immigration while also introducing the show's most colorful character, Flora Ramirez (Ching Valdes-Aran), a flower-shop owner who also covertly helps people like Junior desperate to start over in America. And yet, beyond his own divided devotion to both his grandfather and his girlfriend, Junior himself, however appealingly played by Tambunting, comes off as a bit of a blank, without any particular desires of his own beyond a vague notion of fleeing his troubled home country. In fact, there is a lack of specificity to the motivations of many of these characters that keep us emotionally removed from these supposedly agonizing internal conflicts.

Alan Ariano (second from right), along with Francisca Muñoz, Caitlin Cisco, and Diane Phelan, reminisce about better times in Felix Starro.
(© Richard Termine)

Perhaps a stronger score might have made such dramatic concerns moot. But while Obispo's music is never less than proficient, Hagedorn's lyrics tend toward the prosaic. Even the occasional stabs at cleverness — including a tango number in which a patient inexplicably characterizes her own disease as a "tango of pain" — feel like strained attempts at musical-theater dazzle. (Only in the bossa-nova-like "The Fixer," Flora Ramirez's introductory number, does the musical temporarily spring to life, mostly because of Valdes-Aran's gleefully campy delivery.) More often than not, the bland score for Felix Starro leaves us wondering whether the material would have been better served without music at all. The story itself presents plenty of opportunities for nuanced characters and an exploration of a complex culture in a particularly fraught moment in history, but it all gets buried underneath this musical's desire to entertain.

Peña's cheap-looking production doesn't do Felix Starro any favors. Though the musical takes place in various San Francisco locations, Marsha Ginsberg's dingy-looking set, with its green- and blue-painted walls, never evokes a sense of place, with only a column that is periodically moved across the stage indicating changes of scenery. Only Nick Graci's projections show flashes of wit. A mosaic of Filipino faces that slowly materialize behind Junior towards the end provides the production's most affecting moment, one that briefly suggests the resonant experience that the well-meaning yet misbegotten Felix Starro should have been.

The cast of Felix Starro, which runs through September 15 at Theatre Row.
(© Richard Termine)