Based on a short story by Lysley Tenorio, Felix Starro serves as a representation milestone as the first off-Broadway musical about Filipino Americans by Filipino Americans. Commentary about immigration, faith, the paradoxes of the American Dream, and familial loyalty simmers beneath Fabian Obispo’s operatic composition and Jessica Hagedorn’s on-the-nose lyricism in a world premiere that feels affecting while under-tuned.
The once famous Filipino faith healer, Felix Starro, (Alan Ariano), and his grandson Junior (Nacho Tambunting) arrive in 1985 San Francisco in search of patients to fill their cash bag. Felix Starro prides himself as a sanctified psychic surgeon—a “surgeon” who operates with his bare hands, no scalpel, as a conduit of God.
The “doctor” conducts his “extractions” by pulling out entrails of the patient–“negativities” he calls them. But they are simply chicken guts. Purposed with Catholic piety, Felix Starro is conning himself, convinced that God has blessed him with the miracle touch and that his previous failures, or revealed frauds, were tests from God. Unsurprisingly, it is revealed his temporary settlement in America is an exile—his “healing” was uncovered as a sham and returning to the Philippines with his plummeted reputation would endanger him. Exhausted by the pretenses, Junior grapples with abandoning his lolo to live life as an undocumented immigrant in America and settle with the woman he loves.
Desperation permeates the score, revealing how a lack of options for marginalized communities can force them into the dreadful position of seeking help from questionable sources. Felix Starro was once a powerful figure exploiting the vulnerable, and now he’s downgraded to someone vulnerable exploiting the vulnerable.
Felix Starro’s own desperation to maintain a living and revive his holy purpose depends on the desperation of his fellow Filipinos. Felix Starro’s patients—or marks—pine for cures for the incurable when the medical field has no adequate answers. Consider the most powerful number “Pariah” where a young outcast with lesions (implied from AIDS) pleads for Felix Starro’s magic touch. The “doctor” rejects the boy and a chance at payment, not finding the boy faithful enough—stoking an unspoken disdain for the young man’s homosexuality as well.
The musical’s strength is in how it addresses the complexities of immigrant identity. It understands how moving overseas from the homeland will not rid you of your attachments or failures. Felix Starro dreams of returning to the Philippines, despite Junior cautioning him of haters waiting to kill him. Junior has his own identity crisis when he discovers that his falsified new name comes from a dead person. While he resents the poverty of his homeland, he does not yet want to annihilate his ties to his homeland, even understanding he must inherit the problems that come with the Felix Starro name.
Though the story veers between enigmatic and hazy about Junior’s faith in his grandfather’s exploitative practice, Junior assists with his grandfather’s fraud and compliments what appears to be successful results of his grandfather’s “magic.” But the hints of his internalized disbelief don’t quite develop by the time he voices a resistance to it. How much did he believe in the faith-healing results before? Does he believe out of unconditional loyalty or was he persuaded by the acts themselves? These contradictions are welcome as an idea, yet they are untraceable in Tambunting’s performance in the first half and would have benefited from more apt direction.
Molding the subject matter of faith healing into operatic theatricality on a small stage is fitting, opening with an arresting imagery of resurrection-like scene, toying with Felix Starro’s performative intensity of faith in a cramped space. Small as the stage might be, as threadbare as his living space is, Felix Starro owns it with gravitas and heightened moments compliment his practice. He is a man convinced of his grandeur while living small.
The operatic element peaks in “Magic Tricks,” which hurls the audience into an outrageous mock-nostalgia for Felix Starro’s glory days when a population was bought and sold into his parlor tricks. One of the more poignant numbers is the “Dangerous Roses” duet, where two strangers sing about suffering in silence, tentative about trading stories.
But some numbers grate with tonal indecisiveness. “Tango of Pain” writhes with appropriate agony before dissolving into over-choreographed ensemble dance that fancies agony rather than externalizes it. Junior also has a distant love interest, Charma (Diane Phelan), who echoes in the margins of his mind and boldly vocalizes her stakes, but the upbeat do-da bounciness of her musical number “Remember Our Promise” is incongruously executed with the sympathy for her stakes.
The production yields good-to-exceptional performances. Ariano is authoritatively persuasive, humanizing a soft-spoken con artist as an affectionate and stern patriarch while never assuaging his egoism and culpability, sharing a convincing rapport with Tambunting. Even if her character deserved more empathy and substance, Phelan is spellbinding in her vocals.
Ching Valdez-Aran also casts a spell as Flora Ramirez, a self-assured matronly identity-changer, whose investment in her clandestine practice is as much as a side hustle as it is aiding disenfranchised souls. Ryan James Ortega doubles well as a pitiful outcast before he returns as a smarmy lawyer. As a woman bearing the weight of pain, Francisca Muñoz riddles herself with dejection, as if the floor will swallow her even when she’s standing straight. A standout, and prospective breakout star, is Caitlin Cisco, as the young hotel maid with equal parts headstrongness and honey-sweet mildness burying a deeper anxiety.
Despite its bumpy road, Felix Starro has a compelling destination. For grandfather and grandson, their paths diverge for better and worse. The play concludes with chilling visuals: a projection of photographed Filipino faces processed into American citizens, as Junior approaches the American Dream with not triumph, but trepidation, then there’s a solitary old man reclaiming his pride with blood on the hands.