Finally, for the first-time ever, a musical created and directed by Filipino Americans will be presented off-Broadway.
Ma-Yi Theater Company is pleased to open its 30th anniversary season with the world premiere of Felix Starro, a new musical by Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo.
Felix Starro, based on a powerful short story by acclaimed Filipino American writer Lysley Tenorio, stars The King and I and Miss Saigon alum Alan Ariano playing the title role.
Directed by Ralph B. Peña, this Filipino musical also features Caitlin Cisco, Francisca Muñoz, Ryan James Ortega, Diane Phelan, Nacho Tambunting, and Obie and Lortel award-winner Ching Valdes-Aran.
“This is a blessing for me, to be able to do this.” Ariano said. “We don’t see a lot of representation, we don’t see Filipinos on stage all the time so to actually find out that there’s a new, original musical written for Filipinos, about Filipinos, by Filipinos, that’s great news.”
Making his Ma-Yi debut with Felix Starro, Ariano gets to play a Filipino role for the first time ever. A Broadway and Off Broadway veteran with a career spanning three decades, he has played a multitude of roles and has various musicals tucked under his belt. He was most recently seen playing the role Sam Carmichael in the East West Players production of Mamma Mia!
In Felix Starro, Ariano takes on the title role of the protagonist Felix, a famous faith healer in the Philippines, whose clients once included celebrities and big politicians. After falling on hard times, Felix decides to go to San Francisco for one last healing mission with ailing Filipinos in the Bay Area.
Nacho Tambunting plays Junior, Felix Starro’s nineteen-year-old, orphan grandson, who goes along as his assistant. Unbeknownst to Felix, Junior has plans of his own.
Felix Starro is a universal story that touches on the issues of faith, family, love, loss, betrayal, and what it means to be an undocumented immigrant in America. That makes the characters and the story relatable.
“Felix Starro’s story is relatable because it deals with relationships, faith in not only your religion, but faith in each other. Trust is a big subject in this show, and faith, those are all universal subjects,” Ariano added.
Tambunting is excited that he gets to play the role of a Filipino for the first time. In the few years that he has been in the United States, he has played other ethnicities before, including his recurring role as Francis in the NBC show Rise.
Born and raised in Manila, Tambunting began his career with Repertory Philippines in 2006 – appearing in productions like: The Sound of Music, Seussical, Peter Pan, Camp Rock, The Producers and Jack and the Beanstalk to name a few. He moved to New York in 2014 to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and later graduated with a BFA in Drama.
He described his role as “very challenging” especially since his character has a lot of stage time, which means he does not have many opportunities to go off stage to use the bathroom or drink water so he has to plot his time accordingly.
“It is exciting to get into the role as the show progresses and we can now see how we move from one scene to the next. I am excited for everyone to see it,” Tambunting shared. “I am fortunate and grateful that this opportunity,”
He had heard about the casting call for the show and then last May, he was invited to audition. He got a call back in June and a few days later, he was cast. It has been a year since he had a job so he was fervently looking forward to getting the role.
“I had just finished Rise, which was cancelled, the same time I graduated from NYU and I was going through a lot of auditions and it was really tough,” he shared. “It’s hard to be an actor, you don’t sort of realize it till you’re actually in it: the reality of what it means to go from audition to audition and get the job.”
The story of Felix Starro, the musical, actually began five years ago when the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco commissioned Fabian Obispo to write a musical based on a short story that its artistic director read.
Carey Perloff, then the artistic director of ACT, loved the book Monstress, Lysley Tenorio’s debut short story collection, particularly the story about this Filipino faith healer. She approached Obispo and asked him if he could write a musical about it. He in turn asked Jessica Hagedorn if she’d be interested in doing the book.
So they started writing it and a year later, held a workshop in San Francisco.
“Somehow, that didn’t pan out,” Obispo said. “And then, Ma Yi picked it up.”
And now we’re here.
From just six songs, the musical has evolved into having 18.
Apart from being internationally renowned for his iconic choral arrangements of the Philippine Madrigal Singers, Obispo has been a longtime composer and sound designer of Ma-Yi Theater Company, having previously worked on The Chinese Lady, Teenage Dick, House/Rules, and The Romance of Magno Rubio, just to name a few.
“The range of music, Fabian wrote a lot, we have elements of the indigenous, it is spiritual. It has elements of pop music because it is all around them, and elements of the church because the healers take from religion,” Jessica Hagedorn said.
Felix Starro marks the long overdue return to the New York stage of novelist and playwright Hagedorn whose critically-acclaimed Dogeaters (The Public Theater, 2001) was called “imaginative and fluidly impressionistic” by the New York Times.
“I had the blessing of a very generous writer in Lysley Tenorio who agreed to my offer to adapt his story. His story is not set in 1985 but I set it in 1985 because in a way it makes sense. That was the height of the phenomenon of faith healers, it was also the end of the Marcos regime so that’s the political landscape the grandfather is fleeing from, and of course you get the 80s music as well,” Hagedorn added.
Through the years, the script grew, and they saw what worked and what didn’t.
“It is about faith, family, beliefs; there were people drawn to those faith healers who were not Filipino like Shirley Maclaine and Andy Kaufman,” Hagedorn explained. “People used to travel to the Philippines because they thought it was their last chance, because why not.”
Since its founding in 1989, Ma-Yi Theater Company was originally a Filipino American theater company and it eventually expanded its focus to the wider Asian American theater. It has distinguished itself as one of the country’s leading incubators of new work shaping the national discourse about what it means to be Asian American today.
Building on the recent success of the Lortel Award-winner KPOP and Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick, they are looking forward to sharing a distinct Filipino story.
“This story needs to be told because it is about representation, so that the younger generation can see that they are represented,” Ariano said. “That if they are actors, that there are roles for them to play and if they are writers, that they get inspired to write more stories about their roots.”
The creative team includes Obie award-winner Marsha Ginsberg (scenic design), Brandon Bieber (choreographer), Becky Bodurtha (costume design), Oliver Wason (lighting design), Julian Evans (sound design), Paulo K. Tiról (orchestrations), Ian Miller (musical director), Cristina Sison (production stage manager) and Jorge Z. Ortoll (executive producer).
Performances of Felix Starro will take place August 23–September 15 at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street in Manhattan). Tickets, priced at $52–$102, can be purchased by visiting ma-yitheatre.org or by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200.