Reviews

How To Dance In Ohio ****

By: Isa Goldberg

December 19, 2023: “We all like to socialize,” is a challenging premise to the new Broadway musical, How to Dance in Ohio. Challenging because many adults have yet to meet a teenager who would honestly concur. But the teenagers, and young adults we meet in Ohio want to have a prom, and they want to share their feelings with one another. 

The Cast of “How To Dance In Ohio”.

By: Isa Goldberg

December 19, 2023: “We all like to socialize,” is a challenging premise to the new Broadway musical, How to Dance in Ohio. Challenging because many adults have yet to meet a teenager who would honestly concur. But the teenagers, and young adults we meet in Ohio want to have a prom, and they want to share their feelings with one another. 

Based on Alexandra Shiva’s 2015 HBO documentary about seven young people on the autism spectrum, the musical is cast with high functioning autistic actors. And what makes this production so fascinating…so beyond the fourth wall, so to speak, is that we experience their transformation, their ability to grow, and experience life.

In the theater, that role is given to the audience. Watching fabled actors strut the boards, is about life as imitation. It helps the observer pull things apart and put them together in a meaningful way, so that the audience itself is transformed by the theatrical experience. That is as old as the Greeks. 

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

But on the stage at The Belasco Theater we earnestly believe that when the show is over, the actors will live their transformed lives, which are not as we or they may have imagined them. Heartwarming is an understatement for this show, which is a first in casting actors on the autism spectrum. 

That you won’t leave the theater humming, or necessarily remembering a melody is the attribute of Jacob Yandura’s score. So like elevator music, his ubiquitous Broadway style tuners leave out the bumps, so the music blends into telling this beautiful story. What we do take away, is the feeling of being closer to our own humanity.

Rebekah Greer Melocik’s book and lyrics, true to the documentary, are simple and direct. On one hand, it’s an educational tool, teaching us the language of neurodiversity. Introducing the jargon of people on the spectrum, “nothing about us without us,” and putting it in a sensitive perspective, plants it successfully in our minds. 

As Conor Tague, a most articulate actor says,  “if you’ve met one autistic person…you’ve met one autistic person.” The refrain speaks to the essence of Ohio, in which each character is so distinct and rich in personality.  

Desmond Luis Edwards & Cast.

Imani Russel, a nonbinary actor, portrays Mel, who “believes in art as an act of love and community.” That they’re true to character, speaks to the soul of the show. As is Desmond Luis Edwards (Remy) in his fabulous hair, his wild costumes, and his love of performance. 

Clearly, it’s the actors who steal our hearts.  A wan-looking Taiwanese actor, Amelia Fei makes her Broadway debut as Caroline. A young woman who falls in and out of love, but discovers genuine friendship along the way. Her best friend, played by Ashley Wool, an earnest teen, stands among the seven actors on the autism spectrum who are making their Broadway debut here.

As an audience, we fall for obvious outsiders. Such is the case of Maridet (Madison Kopec), whose endearing dad (Nick Gaswirth) cannot afford the right dress for the prom – or so she feels. Still, her inspiring voice, and nerdy behavior make her the magnet for the show’s most romantic prom date, Drew, brilliantly played by Liam Pearce.  Think Elvis Presley meets his first girlfriend. 

While these characters are drawn from the real people in the titular documentary, what we see in the Broadway musical is a far more glamorous version of their stories. While in the documentary job training in a bakery brings painful confrontation about social interactions, the job training for this Broadway show looks a lot more fun and fulfilling.  Watching the transformation from documentary to musical, is like watching the change from survival to success. It’s entirely positive to see such high functioning people, regardless of their disabilities. 

The Cast of How To Dance In Ohio.

In creating the musical book, the central role of Dr. Amigo, the doctor who works with these young people, gives the dramatic twist to the story.  In this role, Caesar Samayoa plays a man who appears a bit too righteous, and stuffy. It’s a well-crafted mask for a character who, when revealed for his failings, teaches us to appreciate a rare sense of humanity.

Beautiful duets by Broadway stalwart Haven Burton, and Marina Pires, a stand in for the role of Johanna. Delightful and surprising in her role, Pires’ compassionate Mom, and Burton’s, fill out the story of these aspirational and loving youth.

Director Sammi Cannold forges a beautiful ensemble piece, and Bruce Coughlin’s choreography is organic to the actors. Running, jumping, kicking, dancing is their real language. And as infused with Fosse moves, the energy on stage is entirely vibrant. 

Their life stories make for a contagious evening of theater. 

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