by Carole Di Tosti
To what extent does the mind govern the body’s ability to heal? If faith healers encourage the mind’s power over the body to eliminate pain, how can this be exploitive, fraudulent? To what extent is belief “mind over matter?”
The riveting musical Felix Starro directed by Ralph B. Peña, with book and lyrics by Jessica Hagedorn and music composed by Fabian Obispo raises such questions. Indeed, in its richly profound storyline the production presents hard problems about identity, familial love, personal transformation, restoration and redemption, cultural displacement and one’s responsibility to leave a positive legacy.
Based on the unique short story by noted Filipino American writer, Lysley Tenorio, Felix Starro is set in 1985, however, the production is trenchant in its currency. It teases out pertinent issues during the conflict between a broken-hearted Filipino grandfather who goes head to head with his grandson who yearns for a better life in the United States.
This wonderful Broadway experience presented Off Broadway by the Ma-Yi Theater Company was selected to launch the Ma-Yi’s Thirtieth Anniversary Season. As the first off-Broadway musical created by Filipino Americans, it is a sterling production to celebrate three decades of a company that began by presenting only Filipino-American plays.
The musical opens up with the titular song “Felix Starro” and grips our attention because it shadows down a practice used in South America and other parts of the world that defies description and logic: psychic surgery. As the healer plunges his hands in the abdomen of his “patient” he removes something and his hands emerge bloodied. We wonder. Is the patient recently dead? Is this an autopsy? Or is it a resurrection? By the end of the production we realize it is all of these.
In the scenes that follow, we learn that Felix Starro (the fine Alan Ariano) is a once celebrated faith healer who performed psychic surgeries on the Filipino community to heal them and remove their pain. He has come to San Francisco with his grandson Junior (an excellent Nacho Tambunting) to keep healing appointments with those who knew of his reputation back in the Philippines and want to receive a “laying on of hands.”
On this final visit, Felix Starro hopes to achieve an apotheosis of his life and career before he dies, by restoring his reputation servicing the U.S. Filipino community. He believes his fame once more will be broadcast in San Francisco and back home in the Philippines so he can redeem himself and finally be laid to rest in peace. To carry on the family legacy of “the gift of healing” his grandson will receive “the touch,” heal the infirm and remove their pain as his father and grandfather did before him.
However, complications arise and we discover all is not as it would appear with Felix Starro or his grandson (also named Felix Starro). Grandson Junior wishes to free himself of the “gift” which he neither approves of nor enjoys experiencing as he assists his grandfather with the surgeries. To codify the conflict and intensify the emotional high stakes between grandfather and grandson, the songs “Not Ready to Break His Heart,” “Medley of Maladies,” “We Are Here to Perform,” “Tango of Pain”, “Legacy” and “The Fixer” are especially vital.
Junior visits Flora Ramirez (the terrific Ching Valdes-Aran) to arrange for “citizenship papers” which will involve a completely new and false identity. In his mind’s eye, Junior remembers what he promised his girlfriend Charma (Diane Phelan uses her powerful voice to sway him) back in the Philippines. He is supposed to begin the process of cultural transformation in America to eventually bring her over. But does he have the courage to turn his back on his grandfather and the family legacy to become someone else?
Along the way, we discover those Felix Starro heals and doesn’t heal. These include Mrs. Delgado (the superb Francisca Muñoz) Crystal (the lovely voiced, sensitive Caitlin Cisco) and Ryan James Ortega whose versatility has him portraying both a hard-nosed, no-nonsense lawyer and a young man dying of AIDS. The variety and depth of characterization is revealed in the songs which the actors sing exquisitely. All of the performances generate interest. The musical continually compels us as the events develop to a poignant and stirring climax which leaves us amazed by the human capacity for creating its own truths.
Photos: Richard Termine
Felix Starro runs approximately 100 minutes with no intermission at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street), Extended thru Sept. 21
For tickets to this must-see musical, go to their website: http://ma-yitheatre.org/shows/felix-starro/