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A CurtainUp Review
By Gemma Lolos
The show is helmed by May-Yi's Producing Artistic Director Ralph B. Peña who repeats the good work he brought to last year's fascinating Chinese Lady. The book and lyrics by Jessica Hagedorn mark the novelist-playwright's welcome return to the theater (See Curtainups review of Dogeaters).
Alan Ariano, who brings astonishing vulnerability to the title role, has worked as an actor for over 30 years. In his lengthy career, he has brought to life a variety of Asian and Hispanic characters, but until now, he has never had the opportunity to portray a fellow Filipino. The musical's book sheds light on the experience of undocumented Filipinos living in America as well family dynamics and faith as they relate to Filipino culture.
The story takes place in 1985 when dictator Ferdinand Marcos is the Phillipine President. Starro is a famous faith healer known for performing psychic surgeries on ailing clients without medical equipment or medicine, but with his bare hands and prayer. He even performed some of these surgeries on live television and treated high profile patients, such as major politicians and celebrities.
But something has happened to give the country's residents reason to doubt Starro's abilities. People he declared to be cured have taken ill again. And so, Felix leaves for San Francisco, bringing with him his nineteen-year-old, orphaned grandson, Junior. Once there, he plans to heal sick and troubled countrymen living in the Bay Area and to do so for $200 in cash, with Junior acting as his assistant. But Junior doesn't want to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. Named after both his late father (also a faith healer) and grandfather, he has other hopes for his life in America.
Scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg has set the story almost entirely in a San Francisco hotel room— dirty, cheap, and bathed in dark green paint. It's here where Felix and Junior will be doing their faith healing. Inside the room is one filthy fold-out bed, which Felix himself sleeps on when the patients aren't making use of it. Junior curls up on the floor next to his grandfather at night. The rosaries and religious statues on display help to establish the idea that Felix is here to do God's work.
Becky Bodurtha's costume design illustrates Junior's desire to blend in as an American. Clad in a Star Wars T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap, he looks like a typical teenager. Felix, on the other hand, makes a point of wearing a whte shirt and fusses about dying his hair so he can look ageless— like Jesus.
The show runs close to two hours without intermission, even though audiences might benefit from even a brief pause to better digest the often intense subject matter: The arrival of patients with a multitude of maladies and problems who leave Felix's care uncured and with $200 fewer dollars to their names. These people's desperate plight and Felix's healing sessions (complete with chicken's blood and guts and other props) become increasingly hard to watch.
Despite the smoke and mirrors behind Felix's faith healing, it is clear that he does believe in what he is doing. He is motivated by money to a certain degree but sees himself as Godly — as he was back in the days when the people of his mountainous home country respected him and he seemed to have "the touch" as he performed on television surrounded by beautiful assistants.
One of the patients we meet is 20-year-old HIV positiveBobby Santos ( Ryan James Ortega fully capturing this young man's despair). Bobby, convinced that"God is angry" with him, offers to pay double Felix's usual rate. But Felix won't so much as shake his hand. In keeping with his Catholic faith and anti-homosexual lelanings, he declares himself unable to help Bobby because his powers are a"gift bestowed from the Holy Trinity."
Felux's prejudices are again demonstrated by his interaction with another patient, a 16-year-old pregnant girl named Crystal (a charming Caitlin Cisco) who is desperate to have him end her pregnancy. What she gets is one of the healer's psychic surgeries at a discounted rate. While she leaves his hotel room believing Felix's gift has helped her, Junior is furious and contronts Starro about the procedure which Felix justifies with his stubbornly pro-life views.
Fabian Obispo's music wonderfully propels the story forward eotionally and Jessica Hagedorn' s lyrics are spiced with plenty of Filipino words. The program includes a helpful glossary. The small band of musicians (Musical Director Ian Miller on keyboard 1, Eli Zoller on guitar and keyboard 2, Sean Murphy on bass, and Derek Swink on Drums) are hidden from view. However, they support each musical moment without overshadowing the singers' voices.
Standout numbers include the haunting "Tango of Pain." As beautifully delivered by Mrs. Delgado (Francisca Muñoz) that it's easy to forget that this is a song describing in detail the nature of the many pains that plague her. Despite her words ('I feel it here. Then here. Always here. And even here! Can't eat. Can't sleep. Can't think. It's driving me insane") it's impossible not to move to the beat.
"The Fixer" performed by a sensational Ching Valdes-Aran as Flora Ramirez, is easily one of the show' most engaging and enjoyable songs. The song's title refers to Flora, who besides running a flower shop, functions as a fixer who can, for the right price forge documentation to give Filipinos new American identities. It's where Junior's older girlfriend, Charma, (a memorable Diane Phelan) who is still living in the Philippines sends him to fulfill his desire to reinvent himself so that he can live in America.
Nacho Tambunting brings an earnest sweetness to Junior's conflict between familial loyalty and his dreams for the future. And he more than holds his own vocally during his seven featured songs.
Choreographer Brandon Bieber, whose Ma-Yi debut this is, creates a wonderful hypnotizing effect during the number, "Medley of Maladies" that has the company moving like skeletons in time with each chanted word. In another especially arresting scene, Nick Graci projects photos of undocumented Filipino faces on the back wall of the hotel room. Junior and the ensemble stand with their hands over their hearts as if the National Anthem is playing.
Ultimately, there are always the ties of family to consider. In many ways, Felix and Junior only have each other in the world. And even though Junior wants to forge his own path and make his own choices, he still can't bear to break his grandfather's heart.
If Junior stays in America under a name which is not his own, he might be able to find some semblance of happiness and even send for his girlfriend. But he won't be able to leave his grandfather behind him fully. Junior will carry his love for his grandfather wherever he goes, along with the knowledge of his betrayal.
Despite the need for an intermission to ease a few draggy spots, the stories at the heart of Felix Starro are universal. It also fittingly comes at a time when anti-immigrant policies are in full force in this country and we still need to give story tellers like the ones now at Theater Row more opportunities to entertain and move us.
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Book & Lyrics by Jessica Hagedorn
Directed by Ralph B. Peña
Music by Fabian Obispo
Choreography by Brandon Bieber
Cast: Alan Ariano (Felix Starro), Caitlin Cisco (Crystal), Francisca Muñoz (Mrs. Delgado), Ryan James Ortega (Bobby/Ramon), Diane Phelan (Charma), Nacho Tambunting (Junior), and Ching Valdes-Aran (Flora).
Scenic Design: Marsha Ginsberg
Costume Design: Becky Bodurtha
Lighting Design: Oliver Wason
Sound Design: Julian Evans
Projection Design: Nick Graci
Orchestrations: Paulo K Tirol
Musical Director: Ian Miller
Band: Ian Miller (keyboards(, Eli Zoller(guitar, keyboards), Sean Murphy (Bass), Derkek Swink (Drum)
Production Stage Manager: Cristina Sison
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with no intermission
Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street(212) 239-6200
From 8/23/19; opening 9/03/19; closing 9/21/19
Tuesday—Friday @7:00pm, Saturday @2pm and 7pm, Sunday @2pm
Reviewed by Gemma Lolos at 8/29 evening performance
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