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How to Dance in Ohio

The company of How to Dance in Ohio (Photo: Curtis Brown)


By Deirdre Donovan


Of all the musicals opening on the Great White Way this season, How to Dance in Ohio is by far the most groundbreaking. With its seven lead performers identifying as autistic in real-life, this musical brings autism out of the closet and into the bright lights of Broadway.


Based on the documentary by Alexandra Shiva, and directed by Sammi Cannold, this show is heartwarming with a capital H. It moves forward into untrodden theatrical ground and is that rare production that is both edifying and entertaining.


Here's the premise in a nutshell: It s about seven autistic young adults at a group counseling center in Columbus, Ohio, who are preparing for a spring formal dance. In the world of this show, they learn to make small talk, waltz, learn how to ask someone to the dance, and more. One watches all seven of them undergo a transformation by the musical s end. But, what s truly fascinating is witnessing each character go through their own personal crucible of doubts, second thoughts, and sheer reluctance to leave their comfort zone.


The audience gets to eavesdrop on the principals innermost thoughts during this two-hour plus show. And one of their most painful realizations is that the neurotypical world isn t quite ready to make space for them. Or as Jessica (Ashley Wool) expresses it in the opening song, Today Is:


Going places,

I am going places,

There are places I need to be.

But most of the spaces

That I want to get to

Were not designed for me.


The cubist-shaped set (Robert Brill), lit by Bradley King, is comprised of lots of open space and a backdrop of mostly random letters of the alphabet. Among this alphabet soup, however, there are two letters, HP, in the upper right hand corner of the set design. Indeed, they, represent the initials of the late theater titan Harold Prince, who initially worked on the project with the team. Prince, who had an autistic grandchild, presented his last notes to the team the week before he died. Poignantly, How to Dance in Ohio is dedicated to his memory.


The seven autistic adults performing the leads all making their Broadway debuts--are hugely likable. There s Drew (Liam Pearce), a wannabe engineer, who has the analytical and technical skills to make his dream a reality. Marideth (Madison Kopec) is an introvert but has a real passion for geography. The non-binary Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards) is a keen cosplayer who can style himself after Lady Gaga, the Phantom of the Opera, or you-name-the-legend. Tommy (Conor Tague) is bent on getting his driver s license, which he believes will put him on the road to independence. Caroline (Amelia Fei) is smitten with her first boyfriend until she discovers that he s terribly possessive. Jessica (Wool) is Caroline s BFF, and a strong-willed and determined young woman to boot. The openly gay Mel (Imani Russell) is the only one of the autistic characters who s living independently on his own, gainfully employed at the Paws and Claws Pet Shoppe.



 Madison Kopec, Liam Pearce and the company. (Photo: Curtis Brown)


Ironically, the neurotypicals in this play are the ones who seem to be having the meltdowns. Case in point: the group leader, Dr. Emilio Amigo (Caesar Samayoa), might mean well, but he has a tendency for crossing lines that really shouldn t be crossed. For instance, he feels perfectly comfortable telling his daughter Ashley (Cristina Sastre), a Juilliard student recovering from a dance-related injury, how to live her life. And it doesn t stop with his daughter either. He also believes that he has to have a hand in guiding Drew to select the best college for his future. Although Drew was accepted to U of M and declined the offer, he s enthusiastic about the idea of attending a local college. But Dr. Amigo thinks that he knows better than Drew. Consequently, he contacts admissions at U of M, fabricating the story that Drew is still considering their college as an option. Of course, when Drew learns that Dr. Amigo is trying to get him to reconsider going to U and M, he s furious and vents his anger in the song Admissions:


Did you call admissions?

Because I I just heard from U of M admissions,

And they said that you said

That I might be changing my mind

Why would you say that?


If anger is in the air, so is romance. And though these neurodivergent young folks are curious about romantic relationships, they also fear rejection. And, when Jessica, who has just summoned up the nerve to ask Tommy to the formal dance, gets rejected by him, she sums up her experience in three stinging words: That was humiliating.


The company. (Photo: Curtis Brown)


Costume designer Sarafina Bush has whipped up some everyday street clothes for the young adults, their parents, and Dr. Amigo. But when it comes to the formal wear for the dance, she pulls out the stops and sequins. There s smart-looking suits for the young men and strapless frilly dresses for the young women.


Although this musicalized version of How to Dance in Ohio draws on the original documentary, it clearly has evolved into its own theatrical animal. Indeed, this musical (book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik; music by Jacob Yandura) has 20-plus songs (11 in Act 1;10 in Act 2), each propelling the narrative forward and reinforcing the show s main theme of living with autism.


Whereas it s impossible to single out any one number as the best, it's hard to top the energy pulsating through the eponymous song in Act 1 or outdo the innate resilience in The Second Chance Dance in Act 2.


Okay, this musical doesn t say everything there is to say about autism. The autistic young adults who are featured in this show are high-functioning, obviously comfortable on a Broadway stage, not to mention being downright hammy at times. But then How to Dance in Ohio doesn t claim to be a comprehensive look at autism. It simply is inviting an audience to explore autism up close and personal.


In fact, one of the most powerful moments in the show is when Amigo points out to the reporter who s writing a feature on the group s spring formal dance that he doesn t want her article to state that the young autistic adults at his center are suffering with autism. He prefers that she depict them as persons who are coping with unique challenges--and meeting them as best as they possibly can.


How to Dance in Ohio arrives at the Belasco like a breath of fresh air. No question that it has blown wide open a door that can never be shut again. Indeed, seven young autistic adults are heating up the boards on Broadway this season and it s a theatrical event that s long overdue.


How to Dance in Ohio

At the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street

Running time: 2 hours; 30 minutes with intermission.