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Theatre in Review: Felix Starro (Ma-Yi Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Nacho Tambunting, Francisca Muñoz, Alan Ariano. Photo: Richard Termine.

The people behind Felix Starro have on their hands some fascinating and extremely novel subject matter; it's too bad that no one seems to know what to do with it. A musical that cries out for a daringly theatrical approach has been given a conventional book-musical treatment, with results that leave one wondering who the characters onstage are and why one should care about what happens to them.

The title character in Felix Starro is a Filipino faith healer, a practitioner of "psychic surgery," which involves removing "negativities" from the bodies of the ailing; as we see in the opening sequence, Felix appears to reach into a patient's intestines, removing by hand balls of bloody tissue that are, allegedly, the agents of illness. In fact, they are chicken guts, hidden in a bucket stored, just out of sight, under the operating table. (This situation is drawn from life: The Internet is rife with web pages for these frauds, along with a Wikipedia page that traces the practice back several decades.) Whether Felix knows he is a con man or if he believes that his theatrics are a necessary aid to his God-given abilities is one of several issues about which the musical remains mum.

To be clear, there are three Felix Starros: In addition to the character described above, there is his son, who was killed in a car accident, and his grandson, known as Junior, who serves as his personal assistant. As the show begins, it is 1985; Felix and Junior have arrived in San Francisco and are holed up in a seedy Tenderloin hotel -- Marsha Ginsberg's set design is desolate enough to house one of Samuel Beckett's bleaker monologues -- awaiting a well-heeled, and desperate, clientele of Filipino-Americans. The Starros' arrival on these shores is a timely one; Felix has upset some very important people back home with "cures" that didn't pan out and his future there looks shaky at best. Once revered by the likes of Shirley MacLaine, he is determined to claw back his lost fame. But he is vulnerable to betrayal: Junior, egged on by Charma, his girlfriend back home, is primed to abandon his grandfather and start over in the US under an assumed identity.

Given Felix's bizarre career and Junior's conflicted loyalties, not to mention the mounting evidence that time is running out on them both, Felix Starro is rife with dramatic possibilities, few of which are seized. Based on a very good short story by Lysley Tenorio, Jessica Hagedorn's libretto establishes the situation but fails to convert it into compelling drama; the script never matches the story's creepy, melancholy atmosphere, built out of a hundred small, but telling, details. The score -- lyrics by Hagedorn and music by Fabian Obispo -- consists of sedate, almost morose, ballads that never hint at the needs gnawing at the characters' souls.

Front and center is the question of Felix himself: A former television star -- a mildly gaudy production number, featuring a trio of Infants of Prague, makes him out to be the Filipino Jim Bakker - on the skids, he waves his Christianity like a flag and appears convinced that he can perform miracle cures. But does he really? The show constantly evades this all-important question. (When he gets a number meant to address his internal feelings, it is a rather languid anthem about the breezes and greenery of the Philippines -- nice but off-topic.) Alan Ariano, who plays Felix, has an appropriately silken way with his largely female followers, but his character is informed by an eventful past about which we learn almost nothing and the inner man remains unaddressed. In one of the more intriguing sequences, Junior brings him Bobby, a young man suffering from AIDS, whom Felix refuses to touch. Is he afraid of infection? Is his objection rooted in religion or homophobia? Or is he aware that his obvious inability to remove Bobby's lesions will expose his fakery? The script never says.

If anything, Junior is more of a cipher, given to endless hand-wringing about whether to dump the old man and take up the life of the illegal immigrant. (Charma, who appears in Junior's imagination, is a rather steely sort with gold-digging tendencies, who clearly loves Junior less than the idea of being brought to this country; as she sings, "We want our sugar/Sweeter than sweet/Lights that come on/Toilets that flush/Whenever we want.") Unlike the story, the musical never gets at the mix of resentment, shame, and dependency that provides the foundation for Junior and Felix's relationship. As written, Junior seems little more than a patsy for the motives of others, an outline desperately in need of filling in. It's little wonder that Nacho Tambunting, who plays him, often seems lost.

Indeed, Felix Starro often remains stuck in a holding pattern, weighed down by songs that lack energy and have little to say. Once in a while, it threatens to snap to attention, for example during "Tango of Pain," in which one of Felix's clients, a wealthy widow, reveals her chronic suffering, which may or may not have psychological roots; the actress Francisca Muñoz, as if cracking a whip, marshals the story's darker emotions into a stylized outpouring of fury; suddenly we understand the full import of Felix's deceits. There is also nice work from Catilin Cisco as a hotel maid who, as it happens, is in desperate need of Felix's services, though this is another aspect of the plot that wants fleshing out. The great Ching Valdes-Aran makes every appearance count as the enigmatic flower shop proprietor who runs a false-identity business on the side.

Ralph B. Peña's direction has its moments, including some convincingly staged "healings," but he can't find provide a solid dramatic spine where none exists. Oliver Wason's lighting, aside from one or two moments when one or another principal would benefit from some face light, creates some evocatively spooky color washes. Becky Bodurtha's costumes evoke the mid-eighties without resorting to caricature. Nick Graci's projection design creates a dreamlike effect with ghostly, fragment images of the city. Julian Evans' sound design is as crisp and clear as anyone could wish.

The program notes, by Deirdre de la Cruz, an academic, make a case for the phenomenon of Filipino faith healing as a rich object of study, being an admixture of history, religion, New Age spirituality, politics, and the cultural collision of East and West; what we see onstage at Theatre Row, however, is a rather small and squalid anecdote about a small-time criminal and his pathetic retinue, most of whom remain opaque. A Hal Prince, in conjunction with the right collaborators, might have made something of it. Hagedorn, whose play Dogeaters is well worth reviving, and Obispo, a noted composer and sound designer, never find a reason why Felix's story needs to be musicalized; it remains a difficult subject in search of a fresher, more inventive approach. -- David Barbour

(4 September 2019)

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