Book and Lyrics by Jessica Hagedorn; Music by Fabian Obispo; Directed by Ralph B. Peña
Produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 9.21.19
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
by Maria Paz Alegre on 9.14.19
Francisca Muñoz, Caitlin Cisco, Alan Ariano, and Diane Phelan in Felix Starro. Photo by Richard Termine.
BOTTOM LINE: While the fervor of psychic surgery is mostly a thing of the past, the desire for comfort and refuge (albeit through unconventional means) remains painfully relevant.
Got a problem the docs can’t fix? Have no fear—Felix Starro is here! Eschewing modern science and medicine, the famed Filipino healer relies on a different type of holy trinity: magic hands, the good lord, and of course $200 cash per session (no returns or refunds). But from the initial minutes of the musical, it is clear that things are not working out well for the infamous holy man. Dead patients and vengeful families cause Starro (Alan Ariano) and his grandson (Nacho Tambunting) to flee their war-torn country for the dilapidated streets of 1985 San Francisco. It is here, in a city that is cash poor but flush with Filipinx immigrants, that Felix Starro and his grandson have come to find their marks. The numerous Filipinx patients that line his hallways are mostly older, those who remember Starro during his 1970s television primetime heyday. They have come in hope of a cure for everything from diabetes to multiple sclerosis and AIDS. Although many are living below the poverty line, they scrape together every last cent, completely unaware that Starro has already been renounced in their homeland as a fraud and a charlatan.
Directed by one of Ma-Yi’s founders and current artistic director Ralph B. Peña, Felix Starro has a cast and crew that showcases a dazzling array of Filipinx talent. The book and lyrics are written by the celebrated novelist and playwright Jessica Hagedorn, adapted from a lauded short story by Lysley Tenorio. Hagedorn and Peña excel in creating a world where the people are desperate and the stakes are quite literally life and death. Wisely, Hagedorn changed the story’s setting from the modern era to the 1980s, a time when San Francisco struggled financially, and long before Starro could be outed by the internet.
Each compelling character (and there are many) is allowed a moment in the spotlight as patients, victims, and criminals. There is considerable talent in a cast that includes Broadway veterans Ariano, Ching Valdes-Aran, and Diane Phelan. Francisca Muñoz is particularly moving as an ailing widow, as is Caitlin Cisco in her scene-stealing turn as an at-risk teenager. Much of the show is carried on the skilled shoulders of Tambunting as Junior, the conflicted grandson of Felix Starro, who is also his namesake.
Although it is clear that Felix Starro has talent and creativity in spades, the production never quite reaches its full potential due to a few unbalanced elements. A song about a pocket maps seems misplaced, as do a number of songs that portray inner thoughts and feelings but show little personal discovery. The pace and placement of certain numbers can also feel a bit disjointed, which is especially frustrating from a show with so many vulnerable and impactful scenes.
The hope of a refuge from conflict, even to an unwelcoming new country, is both relevant and palpable, especially during the song "T.N.T.", an abbreviation for a phrase that translates to “hiding, always hiding,” which is a nod to the numerous undocumented Filipinx immigrants. The difficult and often tragic circumstances of Filipinx immigration to the United States during the 20th century is a part of American history that has been largely ignored, an error which feels particularly egregious considering that Filipinx are the second largest population of Asians in the United States. Though Felix Starro may benefit from further workshops, the story of the Starro family's rise, fall, and erasure in the American diaspora is certainly one that should be in the history books.
(Felix Starro plays at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, through September 21, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7; Sundays at 2. Tickets are $82.25 - $92.25 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit ma-yitheatre.org.)
Felix Starro is by Jessica Hagedorn (book and lyrics) and Fabian Obispo (music), based on a short story by Lysley Tenorio. Directed by Ralph B. Peña. Choreography by Brandon Bieber. Set Design by Marsha Ginsberg. Lighting Design by Oliver Wason. Sound Design by Julian Evans. Orchestrations by Paulo K. Tiról. Musical Direction and Additional Vocal Arrangements by Ian Miller. Production Design by Nick Graci. Production Stage Manager is Cristina Sison. Dance Captain is Ryan James Ortega. Fight Captain is Caitlin Cisco.
The cast is Alan Ariano, Caitlin Cisco, Francisca Muñoz, Ryan James Ortega, Diane Phelan, Nacho Tambunting, and Ching Valdes-Aran.