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Theater review by Raven Snook
Felix Starro is the name of both main characters in Ma-Yi Theater Company's ambitious musical about a disgraced Filipino faith healer (Alan Ariano) and his grandson (Nacho Tambunting), but the two men’s commonalities end there. A former guru to the stars who once had his own TV show, the senior Starro travels to San Francisco in 1985 hoping to make a buck off his expat countrymen, while 19-year-old Junior intends to start a new life away from the fakery. Based on a poignant short story by Lysley Tenorio, Felix Starro touches on hot-button topics of faith, family, identity and immigration, so it's a shame that it only rarely presses them effectively.
Although the show is ostensibly Junior's coming-of-age tale, his grandfather is the more intriguing figure. Yes, he's a charlatan—the "psychic surgeries" he performs on his desperate devotees involve fake blood and chicken livers—but he truly believes he has special powers, making him palpably tragic. The other characters, including a distressed maid (Caitlin Cisco), an aggrieved widow (Francisca Muñoz) and an AIDS-stricken lad (Ryan James Ortega), come off as two-dimensional despite the best efforts of a talented cast under Ralph B. Peña's straightforward direction.
Fabian Obispo's music bounces between liturgical chants, Lite-FM anthems and Sondheim homage. (The duet "Dangerous Roses" will have you humming "Barcelona.") Jessica Hagedorn's book and lyrics are achingly sincere, which makes the few humorous moments a real relief—particularly "Magic Tricks," a gloriously gaudy flashback to the elder Starro's heyday. But if the heartfelt storytelling too seldom quickens the pulse, it’s a pleasure to see so many actors of Asian descent getting a chance to tell a story that, though universal in appeal, feels unique to Filipino culture.
Theatre Row (Off Broadway). Book and lyrics by Jessica Hagedorn. Music by Fabian Obispo. Directed by Ralph B. Peña. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission.