SMC Professor Lysley Tenorio's Short Story Goes Off Broadway

Professor Lysley Tenorio“I’m super excited,” said Saint Mary’s English Professor Lysley Tenorio, acknowledging his eagerness to attend the opening of the musical adaptation of his short story Felix Starro. A few days later, he was in New York City for the musical’s Sept. 1 premiere at the Theatre Row arts complex in midtown Manhattan. 

One of the works featured in Monstress, his celebrated 2012 collection of short stories, Felix Starro is the tale of a once-famous Filipino faith healer who, after hitting on hard times in the Philippines, travels to America with his orphan grandson, Felix Starro the third. “They are faith healers, psychic surgeons, so they’re basically fakes who come to San Francisco to dupe unwitting Filipino Americans into being healed,” said Tenorio.

The Ma-Yi Theater Company’s staging of Felix Starro is the second time characters from Monstress have been adapted for the theater audience. In 2015, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater featured a play with the same title as the short story collection. While Tenorio, who teaches in and has directed SMC’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, was extremely proud of the earlier show, he says the current production is noteworthy because of how it is being presented and for the artists responsible for the production. 

Ma-Yi’s Felix Starro is reimagined in the context of contemporary musical theater, resulting in a cultural mash-up of Tenorio’s story, arresting musical performances, and pop-infused vocals. “It’s one thing to have the writing in my head and then writing it out for a reader. But then, suddenly you hear it put to music and to hear actors singing the words, the actual writing, the dialogue of my characters, being sung. It’s a real trip.”

Novelist and playwright Jessica Hagedorn, who adapted Felix Starro, has long appreciated Tenorio’s work, praising his writing as original and deep. “It’s an epic musical. It’s telling stories about family, faith, hope, loss, betrayal, and what it means to be an undocumented immigrant,” she said in a YouTube preview video. In addition to Hagedorn, other notable Filipino artists involved in the creative effort include composer Fabian Obispo and director Ralph Peña, who also serves as Ma-Yi’s artistic director. 

Tenorio noted that the cultural authenticity of the production, onstage and by way of its creative team, underscores the importance of the arts highlighting not only more inclusive perspectives, but also the diverse storytellers who present them. “This is the first Filipino American, off-Broadway production ever. It’s a first, not only for representation but also as an acknowledgement of how many talented and visionary Filipino American artists have been producing great material in America today.”  

The Ma-Yi Theater Company’s theatrical run of Felix Starro began in previews on Aug. 23, opened officially this past Sunday, and runs until Sept. 15. Founded 30 years ago, the company’s primary mission is to develop and produce new and innovative plays by Asian American writers.