At the beginning of this eye-opening musical written, composed, directed and largely performed by artists of Filipino descent, Felix Starro has returned from the Philippines to San Francisco to perform his “psychic surgeries” for fellow countrymen in need.
In the first song, the company sings:
Is he for real?
Of course he is!
Just ask the Mayor of Manila….Or Shirley MacLaine
And sure enough, if you Google “psychic surgery and Shirley MacLaine,” the first article that pops up, from The Globe and Mailnewspaper in 2005, is about “a well-known faith healer in the Philippines,” a frequent guest on local TV whom MacLaine wrote about in her book “Going Within: A Guide for Inner Transformation.” The article, though, is about how he was arrested by Canadian authorities in Toronto, charged with fraud and accused of being a fake.
That man’s name is Alex Orbito. “Felix Starro” is fiction – a musical adaptation of a short story of the same title by Lysley Tenorio, with a book and lyrics written by Jessica Hagedorn (best known for her 1990 novel Dog Eaters, which she subsequently turned into a play) and music composed by Fabian Obispo,
Still, a strength of the musical, which launches Ma-Yi Theater Company’s 30thanniversary season, is the authentic feeling glimpse into a world seldom seen on a New York stage. That impression is enhanced thanks to a spot-on seven-member cast, who invest the characters with psychological credibility. Not so incidentally in a musical, they also sing powerfully enough to make the most of a well-orchestrated if not especially memorable score that mixes pop, rock, tango, and a kind of staccato, Sondheim-sounding musical theater.
The faith healer (portrayed by Alan Ariano) has brought along his 19-year-old grandson, also named Felix Starro, but called Junior (Nacho Tumbunting.) Right away, we sense the tension. The elder Felix sings:
Takes after me — So quick,
Do I trust him? Never.
And yes, the orphaned younger Felix, is deserving of this mistrust. He has a mission he is keeping from his grandfather – to stay in the United States. He wants to do this for his girlfriend back home, Charma (Diane Phelan), who manifests in his imagination, urging him on.
Much of the action in the nearly two hour musical with no intermission is the Felixes interaction with their “patients” — scenes that are colorfully choreographed by Brandon Bieber when they are part of a musical number. Felix has his customers lie on a table, while he extracts their “negativities” and prays to the appropriate Catholic saints, depending on the ailment. We eventually learn the tricks of the trade (e.g. “hidden bags of blood and chicken guts.”) But Felix Starro the elder seems to believe that what he’s doing is helping people, even when we learn that the mayor died after the treatment and “his son and his goons….want to kill you.” And even when a young man named Bobby arrives without an appointment at the run-down hotel in the Tenderloin where they are staying:
“I don’t like walk-ins,” Felix says. “You never know if the police….” He doesn’t finish his sentence.
The walk-in, Bobby (Ryan James Ortega), shows his lesions and says that the doctors say there is nothing that can be done for him. Felix, the healer, refuses to touch him.
“My power is a gift. Bestowed from the Holy Trinity. I have no control over it.”
“I get it, old man,” Bobby spits out bitterly. “I get it.”
This one scene may explain why the play is set in 1985. But the creative team doesn’t let us completely dismiss Felix (either one of them). There is an ambiguous scene with a maid named Crystal (Caitlin Cisco) who, 16 and pregnant, goes to the healer for treatment – and, by treatment, she seems to mean an abortion. She walks out of there happy. “I helped that girl more than she knows” – though not by giving her an abortion.
The patients do often feel better in “Felix Starro,” at least for a time, and in that way this unusual musical both depicts, and embodies, the power of imagination.
Ma-Yi Theater Company at Theatre Row
Book & Lyrics by Jessica Hagedorn
Music by Fabian Obispo
Choreography by Brandon Bieber
Directed by Ralph B. Peña
Cast: Alan Ariano, Caitlin Cisco, Francisca Muñoz, Ryan James Ortega, Diane Phelan, Nacho Tambunting, and Ching Valdes-Aran
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
Felix Starro is on stage through September 15, 2020
Update: Extended through September 21, 2020