Benny Luna's in a bad way. His girlfriend has dropped him, his folklore-based performance-art piece is going in the tank, and he's haunted at night by ancestral ghosts who mock and jeer at his plight. In Theater Mu's uneven new musical Filipino Hearts, past and present whisper to one another while lives (and whole scenes) begin to slip into the ether.
The action opens in Minneapolis, where Benny (Allen Malicsi) waits tables and tries to translate his grandfather's Filipino folk stories to the stage. He also behaves in a remarkably normal fashion, given that he spends a good deal of his time in conversation with his deceased LoLo (the aforementioned grandfather, played with wry confidence by Randy Reyes). It's a discourse that boils down to every level-headed young man's plaintive plea: What the hell am I going to do with my life?
That dust bunny is never going to know what hit it
Make art, of course. But for it to be any good, Benny decides he must return to his grandfather's village in the Philippines and get in touch with his roots. Malicsi, who collaborated on the show's book with Rick Shiomi, sells the concept with an earnest and likable performance. A dimension of pity for poor Benny emerges when we learn of his mother's plans for him once he arrives in Manila: He's to be set up with Victoria (Rose Le Tran); presumably, he'll go on to fall in love and embrace a career in dentistry.
After Benny's somewhat grating who-am-I angst, the scenes in Manila are among the best of the show. The tune "Manila" pits postcard splendor against urban poverty. (Composer Kurt Miyashiro wrote the music, generally mid-tempo stuff with not enough standout numbers, while Shiomi handled the lyrics). And Victoria's public coming-out to Benny, a high-energy karaoke love fest delivered by Tran in a red dress, is an unexpected detour into sheer fun.
One wishes this spirit were sustained through the second act. While in Manila, Benny falls (sensibly) for the beautiful Marlina (Elizabeth Truong), a household servant who steps fully formed from the stuff of LoLo's stories—a blend of myth and real flesh. Soon Benny sets out for the countryside and finds himself embroiled in a rivalry with the creepy Juan (Eric [Pogi] Sumangil), who believes himself engaged to Marlina despite her teeming distaste for him. It's a matter of custom, and Benny, a Balikbayan, or Filipino American returning to the Philippines, is understandably over his head on this score.
From here the substance of the drama revolves around Benny and Marlina's parallel Quixotic dreams—his to succeed on the stage, hers (considerably more down-to-earth) to educate the village children. At this point, their characters resemble noble sketches; for its part, the rest of the cast fails to push the ball across the goal. Truong has a sweet voice, but the rest of the singers may want to take a second look at dentistry. It's also hard to pin much dramatic weight to Benny's triumphant staging of what looks to be a decent Fringe offering.
That's not to say this isn't a pleasant show to watch. Truong delivers "Love's Not a Game" with a knowing, bittersweet tone, and the catchy "Tayo'y Magdiwang" emerges as an anthem to Filipino familial bonds. On which subject, I should say that the Filipino audience that surrounded me on opening night reacted with tickled recognition to any number of passing one-liners. Filipino Hearts may have touched Filipino hearts, even if it didn't move mine.