It took Ma-Yi Theater Company five years of workshops and rewrites to bring Felix Starro to their 30th Anniversary season. Given that level of scrutiny, one might think that the finished product would be spectacular. Moments into this story about a Filipino huckster healer (Alan Ariano) who claims to rid folks of their illnesses however, my hope turned to doubt.
It’s true that contemporary musical theater suffers from a lack of originality. Across the landscape, movie production companies have opened their catalogs to determine what can shoddily be musicalized and thrown on stage. To that end, book writer and lyricist Jessica Hagedorn and composer Fabian Obispo should be applauded for they have adapted Lysley Tenorio‘s short story for the theater. But, it’s simply not good.
Aside from “We Are Here To Perform,” a lovely ode to Starro’s homeland and “Magic Tricks”, a razzle-dazzle number about Starro’s glory days, the songs are banal and forgettable. They are also saddled with dreadful lyrics. At one point, Starro’s grandson, Junior (Nacho Tambunting) sings about the city of San Francisco:
I like this city, Its people. Don’t like this city, Its people. Friendly, Not friendly. Sunny, not sunny. Foggy, not foggy. Cold…Not cold enough!
Had Tony Bennett been given those lyrics in 1953, I’m pretty certain that Bay City would be void of its signature song.
Felix Starro, while Filipino-centric, could well have taken place anywhere. The timeframe in Hagedorn’s story is 1985. Then, in the United States, we were being duped by the likes of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. Brazil was also rife with faith healers at the time. The idea of fraudulent miracle workers is not exclusive to the Philipines. Furthermore, the themes of AIDS, abortion, citizenship, and mortality are all packed in here making it difficult to decipher the author’s true focus and intent.
Starro appears to be based on Alex Orbito, a Filipino psychic healer who was brought up on charges of fraud in 2005. They were later dropped. While this character study is fascinating and draws on people’s vulnerabilities and thirst for human healing, there is very little here that requires music. One wonders if it would have been better served as a more streamlined straight play.
It also suffers from a charisma deficit. Ariano is a likable actor but likable isn’t enough for a role that requires a larger than life personality. I instantly thought of the Engineer from Miss Saigon, a sleazy charlatan who is so cunning that one can’t help but buy into his lies. Jonas Nightingale, Steve Martin‘s character from the movie Leap of Faith is another point of reference. The rest of the cast, under Ralph B. Peña‘s direction, generally lacks the weight needed to ground the tale.
“Get My grecian formula,” Starro tells Junior. The elder’s request marks the beginning of his downfall. His spotlight is growing dim, but it seems to take an eternity until it finally dissolves. For a show running one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, Felix Starro seems interminable.
Ma-Yi has done some wonderful, quality work in the past and I wish I could sing the praises of their current project, but then your faith in me would be sorely compromised.
Felix Starro runs through Sept 15 at Theater Row (West 42nd between 9th and Dyer Avenue). For tickets and information, visit http://ma-yitheatre.org/shows/felix-starro/