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Ma-Yi Theater Company presents the first musical created by Filipino Americans in NYC
Throughout his three-decade career, Filipino-American actor Alan Ariano has played a wide variety of roles, notably Broadway stints in the original productions of M. Butterfly and Miss Saigon, and the most recent revival of The King and I. But there's one thing he's never done on stage: portrayed a character who shared his ethnic background. "Roles aren't written for us," he says. "I've played Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Hispanic, but never had the opportunity to play a Filipino." Until now.
Starting on August 23, Ariano takes on the title role in Ma-Yi Theater Company's world premiere Felix Starro at Theatre Row. With a book and lyrics by Jessica Hagedorn, and music by Fabian Obispo, it's the first musical created by Filipino Americans to bow Off-Broadway. Based on a short story by Lysley Tenorio, it focuses on a once famous faith healer in the Philippines, who travels to San Francisco in the '80s to help ailing ex-pats. However his grandson-assistant has a different agenda. Exploring themes of religion, love and family, the show features a score that fuses classic musical theatre, period pop and Catholic mass.
Ariano has been with the project since 2014, when director Ralph B. Peña invited him to participate in an early workshop. Since Felix Starro is an older character, co-creator Hagedorn notes that "it's a very tough role to cast" because, due to the lack of opportunities for Asian-American actors, many of them quit the business before they mature.
Ariano and Hagedorn were raised Catholic (though neither continue to practice), and they both vividly remember the faith-healing craze of the 1970s in the Philippines, when gurus had TV shows on which they performed "psychic surgeries" in front of the camera. Some became so well-known, American celebrities such as Shirley MacLaine and Andy Kaufman went to them for treatment.
To play a character who is considered a godsend by some and a fraud by others, Ariano says conviction is key. "If I believe the character doubts what he's doing, I don't have anywhere to go," he explains. "In the research I've done, there were times when cancer patients were miraculously cured. [The practitioners insisted] faith and positive thinking and optimism could change the chemistry in your body. Next thing you knew, you were healed. I really think that Felix thinks he's helping people."
Regardless of Felix's intentions, his grandson doesn't think he's doing good, which causes a rift between them. In playing a paternal figure, the actor actually took his inspiration (and his accent) from his mother, a single parent of three who brought her family to the U.S. when Ariano was a teenager. The more Felix tries to keep his grandson close, the more he drives the young man away. Ariano says that kind of "codependence" felt familiar. "It's what family is," he says. "Felix and his grandson, they only have each other. That's what hooked me was that relationship: the trust and the faith in it -- and the betrayal."
People all over the world claim to be conduits of God with special "powers," and crises of belief can happen to anyone. However, in telling Felix's story, the creators wanted to explore faith from a uniquely Filipino perspective. Fittingly, almost everyone involved in the show is of Filipino descent, including the writers, director and entire cast save for one actor.
Ariano says it's been a gift to collaborate with his compatriots because he doesn't have to worry about stereotyping. "As an actor, I love to dig deep -- I love to find the pain, the joy, the resentment, the fear, the pride," he says. "I get a lot of roles where I'm asked to play that Asian stoic where we don't get to show a lot of emotions. It's been a real joy to let go of that."
Ariano's performance is the opposite of stolid. In fact, Hagedorn thinks his fiery Felix could teach real-life religious leaders a thing or two. "I went to a mass the other day and when the guy was presenting the blood and body of Christ I thought, you're not as good as Felix!" she says as Ariano laughs. "He wasn't working it like you do, Alan!"
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Top image: Alan Ariano. Photo by Jesse Jae Hoon.
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