It’s not just the vibrant and youthful dance choreography that’s actively moving in the new musical How to Dance in Ohio, now playing an open-ended run at the Belasco Theatre. It’s also the enlightening and encouraging message that is emotionally moving, delivered with humor, heart, and insight by a groundbreaking lead cast of seven autistic actors making their impressive Broadway debuts as seven autistic young adults who face their challenges and anxieties, step out into the world, and move into the next phase of their lives, while overcoming moments of trepidation with courage, connection, and excitement.
Adapted from Alexandra Shiva’s 2015 award-winning HBO documentary of the same name and embellished for the stage with additional characters and plot lines by Rebekah Greer Melocik (books and lyrics) and music by Jacob Yandura, the uplifting and illuminating story is focused on a group counseling center in Columbus, Ohio, where Dr. Amigo engages the circle in connective exercises to help develop their social skills and activity. Foremost among those is preparing for a prom, including deciding on and inviting the person they’d like to go with them, going out shopping to select the clothes they’d like to wear, learning how to dance with a partner, and, ultimately, showing up. But their counselor makes some serious mistakes, misjudgments, and oversteps that have a distressing impact on them and an eye-opening effect on him. Will attendance at the formal dance be thwarted, or will acknowledgment and understanding, forgiveness and forward momentum prevail?
Directed with sensitivity and joy by Sammi Cannold, the heartening musical begins with the lead cast directly addressing the audience, introducing themselves, and sharing the words of wisdom, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” Here we meet seven individuals, all with their own distinctive personalities. Desmond Luis Edwards as the non-binary Remy loves fashion, dressing up, and podcasting about it; Amelia Fei as the quirky and ebullient Caroline repeatedly mentions her boyfriend (who never appears) and the beheading of Marie Antoinette (!); Madison Kopec’s Marideth, the newest member of the group, prefers reading, research, and knowledge to being with people, and frequently asks for permission to leave; Liam Pearce as the intelligent electrical-engineering wiz Drew was accepted by two universities, has a big crush on Marideth, and has to decide if he wants to go off to Michigan or stay closer to home; Imani Russell as Mel works in the reptile department of a pet store with an insensitive boss who degrades their hesitancy to answer the phone; Conor Tague’s Tommy is worried about passing his driver’s test and has planned to use his brother’s truck without permission (it doesn’t go well); and Ashley Wool’s Jessica wants him to go to the prom with her, since she isn’t comfortable taking the bus and he’ll be able to drive them.
The irresistible characters are captured by the engaging actors with enormous likeability that keeps us rooting for them and their progress, growing self-determination, and night of celebration. They also give us glimpses into their thoughts and concerns in twenty-two empathetic musical numbers (orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; music direction by Lily Ling), with perfect group harmonies and beautifully sung expressive solos, including Kopec’s outsider feelings in the “Unlikely Animals” of Australia (“a lesson in what isolation and distance can do”) and the blockbuster performances of “Waves and Wires” and “Building Momentum” by Pearce, whose vocal power and long notes dazzle. He also delivers one of the funniest scenes in the show, giving two different readings of how an email he sent to Dr. Amigo could be interpreted, though all have their moments of laughs that contribute to the upbeat humor.
Played by Caesar Samayoa, the mostly well-intentioned but not always thoughtful, sometimes egotistical, and often controlling Dr. Amigo causes some major problems with the therapy circle and with his own daughter Ashley (Cristina Sastre), who, against his wishes, wants to give up a career in ballet to work at the counseling center (reinforcing the theme that everyone should have the right to decide). His most egregious error is an interview gone wrong – very wrong – with an ambitious blogger, who posts before the agreed-upon date and uses offensive and inappropriate language that hurts and angers the group (none of whom were interviewed for the post) and threatens the prom.
Rounding out the fine company in the supporting roles of the parents, reporters, and boss are Carlos L. Encinias, Nick Gaswirth, Melina Kalomas, Haven Burton, and Marina Pires (filling in for Darlesia Cearcy at the performance I attended) – the latter two as the mothers Terry and Johanna, who take their daughters to Macy’s to pick out gowns and reminisce about their own proms in the warm and nostalgic “Getting Ready for the Dance” (underlining the simultaneously stressful and exciting experiences to which everyone can relate).
The simple but eye-catching set by Robert Brill, with colorful lighting by Bradley King, includes movable chairs and furnishings, a turntable stage on which to move and dance to Mayte Natalio’s lively choreography, and running scaffold ladders before a back wall that combines squares of dance steps with scrambled letters in marquee lights, mannequins in formal wear, and a scoreboard-style digital clock that counts down the number of days till the prom, from 99-1. Conor Wang provides clear sound, and costumes by Serafina Bush, with hair and wigs by Charles G. LaPointe, define the tastes and ages of the characters, with a riotous cosplay array for Remy and Barbie-pink gowns for the dance, which contrast with the more modest blue dress of Marideth.
How to Dance in Ohio is not only enjoyable, its main characters endearing, and its company talented and compelling, but it’s also a significant trailblazing musical that gives a voice to autistic people, which has too often been unheard. That’s a win/win/win.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.