Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

How to Dance in Ohio

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 10, 2023

How to Dance in Ohio. Book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik. Music by Jacob Yandura. Based on the documentary film of the same title by Alexandra Shiva. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Choreography by Mayte Natalio. Set design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting design by Bradley King. Sound design Connor Wang. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Arranger Jacob Yandura. Music coordinator Michael Aarons. Additional music arrangements by Matt Gallagher. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Music director Lily Ling. Director of community engagement Becky Leifman. Artistic creative consultant Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt.
Cast: Desmond Luis Edwards, Amelia Fei, Madison Kopec, Liam Pearce, Imani Russell, Conor Tague, Ashley Wool, Caesar Samayoa, Haven Burton, Darlesia Cearcy, Carlos L. Encinias, Nick Gaswirth, Melina Kalomas, and Cristina Sastre.
Theater: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 6th Avenue)

The Cast
Photo by Curtis Brown
Remember how it felt during the months leading up to your high school prom? Ignore this question if you were full of confidence, aware of who you would be going with, sure of your appearance, well-practiced in your dance moves, etc. But if you come up with words like "awkward," "nervous," "fearful," "panicky" and other synonyms of that ilk, then welcome to the world of the seven young adults in the musical How to Dance in Ohio, which opened tonight at the Belasco Theatre. They are at least as unsure of themselves as you may have been, but they also happen to be autistic, as are the performers playing the roles.

That is the impetus for and the thrust of the heart-felt show that, like Alexandra Shiva's 2015 documentary film of the same title on which it is based, follows a group of autistic late adolescents preparing for a formal dance under the guidance of their counselor, Dr. Amigo, played on stage by Caesar Samayoa. The group of seven characters has been working with Dr. Amigo in a nurturing environment that encourages and supports the development of their interpersonal workplace and social skills. The dance is meant to put their hard efforts to a practical and rewarding test.

As in the film, the musical goes to great pains to make sure we understand that the characters being depicted represent specific people, and that we should draw no general conclusions regarding the many manifestations of autism. Indeed, we are told directly in an introductory prologue, "if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person."

So meet seven such individuals and their talented portrayers. There's Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards), who posts self-made cosplay videos and whose dream is to "design movie costumes one day." There's Caroline (Amelia Fei), who talks a lot about her "first ever," if not-so-wonderful, boyfriend with whom she expects to attend the dance. There's Merideth (Madison Kopec), who finds comfort in her chosen world of non-fiction because "facts are safe, tried, and true." In a similar fashion, we learn about the others: Jessica (Ashley Wool), who loves everything related to dragons; Drew (Liam Pearce), who has been accepted into a prestigious college engineering program but is uncertain whether he wants to go; Mel (Imani Russell), who works in a pet shop and is hoping to be promoted to be "head of reptiles"; and Tommy (Conor Tague), who is striving to get his driver's license in time to be able to drive his brother's truck to the dance.

The Cast
Photo by Curtis Brown
Identifying shortcuts like these help us to differentiate the characters, and we do get to know something about each of them, if not as deeply as we would perhaps want to. But it does seem as though we are meant to engage more with the collective experience of the autistic characters and cast members. No doubt, some may wish to see the show on those terms. But for those looking for an engrossing Broadway musical, How to Dance in Ohio is far too earnest, too safe, too tentative. The same can be said of a subplot involving Dr. Amigo's daughter Ashley (Cristina Sastre) that adds little and feels shoehorned in. Overall, the material provided by the musical's bookwriter and lyricist Rebekah Greer Melocik is mostly surface, and neither the plot nor the unexciting songs (with music by Jacob Yandura) provide enough of interest beyond that.

This is a coming-of-age story, or rather, a slice of a coming-of-age story, about a particular subset of adolescents whose angst, while shaped in no small part owing to their autism, is basically angst of the fairly universal type. Only occasionally does the show touch upon deeper questions, such as the extent to which the challenges of autism intersect with the sort of learned helplessness that is unintentionally imposed by well-meaning parents or counselors, causing the already-anxious characters to second-guess themselves and struggle with making personal decisions lest they mess up.

At least with the documentary film, we meet the actual autistic people (some of whom are well past the age of the members of this appealing group). The autistic actors, all making their Broadway debuts, perform with grace, charm, and skill, and it is wonderful to see the spotlight shining on them and on their characters. But it is unclear as to the intent of the show, which lacks much by way of character development, dramatic tension, or insight. Perhaps it adheres too closely to the more effective source material instead of exploring its points in greater depth, or perhaps the creative team sees it as a first step in the theatrical depiction of autistic characters. But even as we cheer them on and take delight in their triumphs, there is not enough here to make this a successful film-to-stage translation.