Reviews

How To Dance In Ohio **1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

December 15, 2023: In 2015 Alexandra Shiva created a bittersweet but heartwarmingly inspiring documentary, How to Dance in Ohio, about a group of autistic persons, ranging in age from their teens to their 20s, enrolled in a program designed to enhance their social skills. Considering the difficulty inherent in transforming such material into a full-blown musical, it was surprising to learn, first, of a 2022 production at Syracuse Stage, and even more so of its subsequent move to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. The great Harold Prince was originally on board to direct; when he died the task fell to Sammi Cannold. Despite a veritable army of producers, and a subject just begging to be loved, the disappointing result is more heartbreaking than heartwarming.

Liam Pearce & Cast of “How To Dance In Ohio”.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

December 15, 2023: In 2015 Alexandra Shiva created a bittersweet but heartwarmingly inspiring documentary, How to Dance in Ohio, about a group of autistic persons, ranging in age from their teens to their 20s, enrolled in a program designed to enhance their social skills. Considering the difficulty inherent in transforming such material into a full-blown musical, it was surprising to learn, first, of a 2022 production at Syracuse Stage, and even more so of its subsequent move to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. The great Harold Prince was originally on board to direct; when he died the task fell to Sammi Cannold. Despite a veritable army of producers, and a subject just begging to be loved, the disappointing result is more heartbreaking than heartwarming.

The documentary examines the work of Dr. Emilio Amigo at Columbus, Ohio’s, Amigo Family Counseling Center. He has multiple clients, but the film concentrates on three young women: the plus-sized, 22-year-old Jessica, who works at a bakery; the slender 16-year-old Marideth, obsessed with “facts” and the internet; and the blonde, 18-year-old Caroline, beginning to attend community college. As with all the show’s casting, the actors bear little to no resemblance to their real-life originals. Caroline, for example, is portrayed by the Asian American Amelia Fei and Jessica by the relatively petite Ashley Wool. (Marideth is played by Madison Kopec.)

Madison Kopec center and The Cast of-How To Dance In Ohio.

The show prides itself on all its autistic characters being played by actors themselves on the spectrum, a significant first for Broadway. That, though, opens the door to other problems, since these actors, all gifted with professional singing, movement, and acting talent, are so distant from the frequently (but not universally) inarticulate, physically and emotionally insecure persons they’re playing—very much like the sweet teenager who lives next door to me—that it’s difficult to associate them with the kinds of issues they represent. Whatever may be their characters’ neurological complications, we’re aware of them more because of the book’s exposition than from what we see and hear. The theatre, of course, depends on our suspending our disbelief, but that doesn’t absolve it from the need to earn that privilege. 

In both the film and show Dr. Amigo’s mission is to help his typically withdrawn, introverted clients enhance their social skills to equip them for dealing with employment responsibilities and personal relationships. As someone says in the film—a familiar line relegated in the musical to one of the actors in the show-opening prologue—“you’ve met one autistic person . . . , you’ve met one autistic person,” implying that there’s too much diversity among those on the spectrum to paint all such persons with the same brush. 

The Cast of How To Dance in Ohio.

The central action tying the characters together is a “spring formal,” a prom-like event created by Dr. Amigo for which his charges—over the course of 12 weeks (99 days in the show)—will need to learn such things as how to request (or reject) a partner, how to dress appropriately, and how to dance (with the emphasis on a group routine called “The Wobbly”).

Within this simple outline the documentary’s richness lies in its exploration of Jessica, Marideth, and Caroline in their daily lives. Among other things, we discover how patient, kind, wise, and supportive are their parents (and Marideth’s older sister), and how similarly valuable are the gently positive ministrations of Dr. Amigo, as well as of others who deal with his clients, at the center and elsewhere. 

The Cast of How to Dance in Ohio.

Regrettably, however, book writer Rebekah Greer Melocik, in her quest for a show that would somehow satisfy the conventional expectations of a Broadway audience, has chosen to hoke up the action with additional subplots, romanticizing and sentimentalizing what was already romantic and sentimental but in no way as thickly. There’s even a prologue line excusing the dramatic liberties: “The show is based on things that actually happened. But parts have been embellished for dramatic purposes. You have to spice things up in Ohio.” I guess it depends on what “embellished” means. 

One embellishment is Melocik’s amplification of the original by spreading the focus beyond the central three women to four other autistic persons: Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards), Drew (Liam Pearce), Mel (Imani Russell), and Tommy (Conor Tague). Each is peripheral on screen but gets plenty of time on stage. Melocik also kills off Marideth’s mom, making the father (Nick Gaswirth) a widower; omits Caroline and Jessica’s dads; and pumps up Dr. Amigo’s (Caesar Samayoa) story to make him into a divorcé who has issues with his co-worker daughter, Ashley (Cristina Sastre). She, for her part, is a would-be dancer accepted into Juilliard who decides she’d rather work at the center than pursue a dancing career. This allows a secondary father-daughter problem to indirectly reflect those of the clients. In effect, it’s little more than padding.

Another bloat-inducing subplot introduces a pair of local journalists, a man and woman, interested in writing about the spring formal. The male (Carlos L. Encinias) writes a politically incorrect story that dooms the formal (not to worry, there’ll be another), the female (Melina Kalomas) inspiring an annoyingly distracting, highly unlikely, fling with Dr. Amigo. These and multiple other inflationary embellishments puff the running time to nearly two and a half hours, an unnecessary hour longer than the film.

Ashley Wool (center) & cast of How to Dance in Ohio.

Cannold’s direction is standard Broadway fare, fast paced, energetic, and with mostly oversized, unnuanced performances. Mayte Natalio’s choreography is more flashy staged movement than typical dance. Robert Brill provides a unit set that’s mainly a large gridwork allowing scene-defining panels to slide in and out, while big, electric letters are scattered randomly across the grid. It’s the kind of neutral set that invites extensive lighting effects, here provided by Bradley King. Sarafina Bush’s costumes make the autistic characters far spiffier than they are on screen. And don’t expect anything like the long gowns chosen for the formal by Caroline and Jessica, which means that one of the film’s most endearing bits, when Caroline wonders if her dress is showing too much cleavage, is absent.

The songs, with music by Jacob Yandura and lyrics by book writer Melocik, have a familiar, mostly upbeat, Broadway sound, many requiring belting; few, however, make much of an impression, even when well sung. If I had to single out one singer from a cast with many, I’d choose the tall, lanky Liam Pearce, a perfectly ruffled pompadour adorning his brow, in the role of Drew. He knocks his 11o’clock number, “Building Momentum,” out of the park, which only serves to remind us of how far his character is from the person it’s based on. 

The creators of How to Dance in Ohio bravely undertook a huge challenge in trying to adapt a lowkey documentary about autistic persons to the demands of a full-blown Broadway musical. As I noted, I was surprised the attempt was even being made. Regrettably, I wasn’t surprised at the result. I wish I felt better about what is billed as a feel good show..

How to Dance in Ohio **1/2
Belasco Theatre
111 W. 44th Street, NYC
Open run
Photography: Curtis Brown

The Cast of How to Dance in Ohio.