Like many musicals, Felix Starro, opening Ma-Yi Theatre Company’s 30th anniversary season at Theatre Row, is about the tenuous connection between family and faith. What makes Felix’s strong ensemble of voices unique is that they are heard in the first Off-Broadway Filipino-American musical where pain may be imaginary but always real.
Jessica Hagedorn’s book and Fabian Obispo’s score is based on Lysley Tenorio’s short story. Filipino psychic surgeon Felix (Alan Ariano) and his teenage grandson Junior (Nacho Tambunting) are in 1980s San Francisco on the older man’s latest mission to heal those in pain. His technique combines prayer and a lot of faith on the part of the seeker. However, Felix’s defines pain arbitrary. He refuses to touch or comfort, Bobby (Ryan James Ortega), who is dying of AIDS and lies to Crystal (Caitlin Cisco) the 16-year-old hotel housekeeper about her pregnancy.
In a welcome departure from most musicals, it is deliberately and gradually revealed who and what Felix is. The composing team and director (and Ma-Yi’s Producing Artistic Director) Ralph B. Peña gets to the truth in two numbers. “Melody of Maladies” (photographed above) is a macabre parade of underwear-clad patients (played by the supporting cast) singing of their ailments while Felix works (with the exception of Bobby) on each of them. “Magic Tricks” is Felix’s confessional memory of 1970s TV stardom. Turns out Filipino psychic surgery is potent as both a metaphor and conduit for the Marcos regime of violence and corruption.
While Felix Starro’s plot is not average musical theater fare, its music is – and that’s not a criticism. Hagedorn and Obispo’s inspiration is Rent; not a bad choice for a show seeking answers to all kinds of questions. It is wonderful they provide two supporting female characters with songs that, unlike those of the title character, are miniature autobiographies. Francisca Muñoz’s grief-stricken Mrs. Delgado performs the showstopping “Tango of Pain” twice. Her encore is not unexpected but nevertheless emotional. Ching Valdes-Aran’s Flora is neither a patient nor admirer of Felix. She is Junior’s contact for arranging his non-legal residence.status. During “The Fixer” she declares herself ” a bitch.” Whatever she does is her concern. Onstage she is a diva in the truest show tune sense.
Alan Ariano and Nacho Tambunting are a good match of generational, ethical opposites. Their relationship is vocally strong and believable. Ariano protects Felix even as his true self is revealed. San Francisco is a turning point in Junior’s life, beautifully summarized by Tambunting in “John Arroyo Cruz”.
With so much at stake for every character, Felix Starro runs two intermission-less hours. There is at least one possible break. Perhaps it’s creators feel that putting it in would lessen the impact.
Felix Starro opened on September 3, 2019 and runs through September 21 at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, NYC). For tickets and a look at the reinvigorated, renovated Theatre Row, please click here.