The decision to avoid going into the family business can be a wise one, especially if that business involves the questionable practice of psychic healing. However, if that choice also means surrendering not only the family name, but one’s entire identity, then scamming the sick and elderly might seem to hold merit. Such is a young man’s quandary in Felix Starro, the sincere and split-focus new musical by Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo that opens the Ma-Yi Theater Company’s 30th anniversary season. Under the direction of Ralph B. Peña, this nearly two-hour dive into the meaning of faith is the first musical created by Filipino Americans to appear Off-Broadway.
While the tale centers around the generational divide between a victimizing grandfather and his orphaned teenage grandson, circa 1985, Hagedorn’s book (based on a short story by Lysley Tenorio) and lyrics do not shy away from hot-button topics including AIDS, abortion and illegal immigration. It should come as no surprise, then, that the musical numbers bear titles such as “Medley of Maladies,” “Tango of Pain” and “Pariah.”
The suave Alan Ariano portrays the title character, a faith healer from the Philippines who is decidedly past his prime. In his homeland, he was once a master of psychic surgery, the fraudulent art of sticking one’s hands into the gullet of an ailing patient, without aid of a scalpel, and removing globs of disease. Cue the chicken guts and fake blood.
Having fallen upon hard times, Felix has come to San Francisco with his grandson, Felix Starro III, a.k.a. Junior (Nacho Tambunting), to make some fast cash; 10 days in a seedy hotel in the Tenderloin district, offering his services to a woebegone Filipino community of believers. That his profession literally leaves him with blood on his hands is one of those lucky theatrical metaphors that effortlessly defines a character’s destiny.
Junior, meanwhile, has plans beyond just being his grandpop’s able assistant. Spurred on by thoughts of his left-behind girlfriend, Charma (Diane Phelan, singing beautifully), he plots to stay in America, become a new man, and eventually bring his beloved to the states as well. Though forced to bide her time in the Philippines, Charma is made manifest on stage as she pops into Junior’s line of sight to push him forward:
‘Charma loves me. Charma loves me, and I love Charma.’ Just keep saying that and you will not drown. There’s nothing here for us, Junior. This country’s broken. Bagsak. You can’t come back here with that Lolo of yours! He’s broken too.
On two different paths with two different fates, the Starro men fail to resolve their conflict. Instead, Hagedorn and Obispo simply provide each with their own individual finale. In the penultimate scene, Junior achieves the anonymity he seeks and leads the company in one of the night’s most stirring numbers, “T.N.T.” a fanfare inspired by the Filipino phrase tago nang tago, meaning “always in hiding” (“Speak in code/Don't speak at all/And wear my mask/Of smiles.”). Then, in the final scene, the elder Starro is left to his own mystic devices and can only bemoan his lost past, singing, “My rise to glory/Was fast and thrilling./Such an old story/My downfall/So chilling.”
Drinking Johnnie Walker straight from the bottle and more concerned with dying his hair than aiding the dying, Ariano nearly manages, nonetheless, to make the old man a sympathetic character. But there is no coming back from the villainy of turning away an HIV victim (the dynamic Ryan James Ortega) and intentionally misleading a pregnant girl (a demure Caitlin Cisco). Less clear is whether or not he believes that he is actually doing good by providing his patients their temporary cures of positivity. Tambunting’s driven young man is easier to feel for, especially when rationalizing that “my Lolo only helps those the doctors can no longer help,” and realizing that buying a false identity means that somewhere, someone his age no longer lives.
The supporting cast members all have their own memorable moments. Ching Valdes-Aran, as a florist named Flora, has a wicked solo that reveals her true colors, while Francisca Muñoz plays a wealthy, near-death widow who gets the full hands-on treatment. Simple but effective lyrics and stirring melodies make for a somber score with an occasional lively bounce, though director Peña, more often than not, has his actors turn out to the audience to deliver their numbers, when facing their situations head-on would have been all the more effective.
The Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production of Felix Starro plays through Sept. 15 at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or visit ma-yitheatre.org.