“My power is a gift. Bestowed from the Holy Trinity. I have no control over it” declares the charismatic elderly flimflam faith healer and titular character of the musical Felix Starro. The show is an intriguing exploration of the widespread Filipino cultural phenomenon of the ill, seeking cures for their maladies from thundering Christian figures with renowned fantastical powers. It’s in the familiar tradition of Aimee Semple McPherson and Elmer Gantry.
In the 1970’s, Felix Starro had a popular television program in the Philippines in which he was assisted by his same-named son in performing miracles on the infirm. His son and his son’s wife were later killed in a traffic accident. In 1985 after the mayor of his village died after undergoing treatment from Starro he had to leave town. He’s now arrived in San Francisco accompanied by his orphaned 19-year-old grandson also named Felix but called Junior to start anew by fleecing Filipino-Americans for $200 a session.
“A great healer must look ageless, Junior. Like Jesus — like Elvis — like – President Ronald Reagan!” says Felix to his grandson regarding dyeing his hair with Grecian Formula. His “psychic surgeries and special prayers” involves a lot of hand laying and histrionic praying. They’ve set up shop in a shabby Tenderloin hotel. There, the gullible suffering from multiple sclerosis, diabetes and AIDS seek his assistance. Things go awry after a pain-ridden widowed socialite’s condition worsens following a “healing” and her lawyer son seeks retribution.
Adapted from Lysley Tenorio’s short story, Jessica Hagedorn’s book is a skillful dramatization with an abundance of ethnic details, uneasy atmosphere and narrative suspense. Just when the plot appears to have been exhausted, there’s another twist.
The score with Ms. Hagedorn’s sharp lyrics and composer Fabian Obispo’s pointed melodies in the manner of Stephen Sondheim and John Kander is quite accomplished with its rousing group numbers and rich solos. Highlights include an eerie sequence with one sick person after another seeking rejuvenation, a Billy Flynn Chicago-style bit documenting Felix’s past popularity and an acidic anthem by a mercenary San Francisco female florist who deals in black market identity papers for illegal immigrants.
With his purring Filipino-accented smooth voice, beaming countenance and majestic presence, Broadway stage veteran Alan Ariano is sensational as Felix. Mr. Ariano effortlessly conveys the egotistical charlatan’s wiliness and self-absorption. Particularly striking is Ariano’s vivid depiction of the character’s hypocritical sensibility as he espouses moral beliefs and altruism while gleefully admitting he’s a fraud.
Nacho Tambunting as Junior offers a compelling portrait of a troubled youth caught between family loyalty and righteousness. Mr. Tambunting’s animated boyishness is quite charming.
Elevating the potentially stereotypical Asian dragon lady role of Flora Ramirez, the steely florist and fixer, is the magnetic Ching Valdes-Aran. Ms. Valdes-Aran is bewitching as she breathlessly veers from chilling to wry to sympathetic. Valdes-Aran truly lights up the stage during her appearances and her rendition of the character’s witty big song is one of the show’s grand highlights.
Mining all of the comedy possible in the piece is the effervescent Francisca Muñoz as the suspicious widow Delgado desperate for relief from intense undiagnosed pain. Decked out in a lavish outfit, Ms. Muñoz is winningly daffy and later poignant. Caitlin Cisco as the good-natured maid has some touching and tender moments. Diane Phelan is wonderfully fiery playing Junior’s girlfriend seen in flashbacks or in his mind. Ryan James Ortega makes a great impression in his dual roles of a young gay man with AIDS and the vengeful lawyer. Much of the cast dynamically also appears as chorus members and in subsidiary parts.
Director Ralph B. Peña’s vigorous staging melds the presentational elements with the performances into an engrossing production. This is a major achievement as Felix Starro is structured as two hours without an intermission. Arguably it would be more effective with an interval or condensed. Brandon Bieber’s snazzy choreography blends native movement with show biz flair for some terrific numbers.
Marsha Ginsberg’s ingenious scenic design is outstanding as we’re rapidly transported to several locations. The stage is set with drab green walls that serve as the bleak hotel room with its worn sink and weathered furnishings. Doors and walls move and are reconfigured to connote different locales including the Philippines that are sometimes represented by stark projections. There’s a blue border that wraps around the top of the set signifying the sky.
Lighting designer Oliver Wason expertly varies brightness, darkness and crimson to evoke moods, places and tones. Julian Evans’ bold sound design perfectly renders the music and various effects. From Mrs. Delgado’s smart ensemble to Flora Ramirez’s lab coat and numerous exotic flourishes, Becky Bodurtha’s costume design is superior.
Due to the talents of orchestrator Paulo K Tiról and musical director Ian Miller, the musical quality of Felix Starro is impressive for an Off-Broadway production. At times it’s like we’re experiencing a full-fledged treatment of Sweeney Todd in all of its complex glory.
Felix Starro is presented by the Ma-Yi Theater Company “whose primary mission is to develop and produce new and innovative plays by Asian American writers” and is celebrating its 30th season. This show is billed as “the first off-Broadway musical created by Filipino Americans.” In addition to its artistic merits, it’s native authenticity is potent.
Felix Starro (extended through September 21, 2019)
Ma-Yi Theater Company
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.ma-yitheatre.org
Running time: two hours without an intermission