By: David Sheward
December 13, 2023: Two new musicals are inspired by real events and by documentaries which are readily available for viewing on the Max streaming services. This provides a contrast between the conventions of musicals and the objective observations of the filmmakers. How to Dance in Ohio, on Broadway at the Belasco after a production at Syracuse Stage, focuses on seven young adults with autism as they prepare for a spring formal dance organized by their therapist. Buena Vista Social Club, Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company,chronicles the making of the 1997 Grammy-winning hit album reuniting musicians who performed at the titular establishment in pre-Castro Havana. Both are entertaining, absorbing and, in the case of the latter, a dazzling, pulse-pounding musical event, but they rely too heavily on familiar musical-theater tropes, not trusting the messy, yet authentic qualities of their source material.
In the 2015 HBO documentary How to Dance in Ohio, filmmaker Alexandra Shiva focuses on three young autistic women and their struggles with social skills and entering the adult world independent of their families. In Rebekah Greer Melock’s book for the musical version, the scope is expanded to seven protagonists. The engine of the plot remains preparation for a prom-like event. That is the most moving element of the show as the participants learn to cope with their anxieties and the challenges of interacting with others.
Melock’s book is compassionate and informative on the subject of autism. As the therapist Dr. Amigo (a tender and caring Caesar Samayoa) says, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Each individual is uniquely effected by the condition and Melock conveys the wide variety of their responses with humor and caring. The songs with smart lyrics by Melock and lovely music by Jacob Yandura are a pleasant mix of funny charm numbers, emotional ballads, and clever character pieces highlighting the interests of the dance participants. “Unlikely Animals” featuring the fascination the marsupials of Australia holds for the reclusive Marideth (heartbreaking Madison Kopec) is one of my favorites. The staging by director Sammi Cannold and choreographer Mayte Natalio is smooth and professional, aided by Robert Brill’s fluid set and Bradley King’s warm lighting.
My only caveat is Melock has added melodramatic twists which feel forced and artificial. These include the therapist’s recent divorce, the difficult life choices of his daughter who wants to work with him at his family therapy center after suffering a dance injury, and a condescending internet article about the dance which nearly ruins everything. (Surprise, it all works out in the end.)
Fortunately, the cast overcomes theses minor deficiencies, infusing their roles with heart and yearning. All the autistic characters are played by actors with autism, delivering keenly-felt and authentic performances. In addition to Kopec’s devastating Marideth, kudos to Desmond Luis Edwards’s eccentric and fabulous Remy, Amelia Fei’s adorably shy Caroline, Liam Pearce’s determined Drew, Imani Russell’s sensitive Mel, Ashley Wool’s spiky Jessica and Conor Tague’s very funny Tommy (watch what he does with his eyebrows.) Haven Burton and Darlesia Cearcy have strong moments as two mothers determined to guide their daughters through the choppy waters of prom night and choosing a gown. Ohio is a sweet and moving ensemble piece, slightly flawed but endearing.
Buena Vista Social Club was also the subject of a documentary—Wim Wenders’ 1999 Oscar-nominated feature which spotlights the making of the titular album and a legendary Carnegie Hall concert celebrating the musicians of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Like How to Dance in Ohio, the new stage musical version emphasizes soap-opera-ish aspects of the story. Marco Ramirez’s book takes artistic license with the chronicling of the album, time-tripping between 1996 (when the album was recorded) and 1956 (when the artists were beginning their careers in the flourishing age of Cuban music before Castro closed many of the celebrated Havana niteries.) The center of focus is vocalist Omara Portuondo (an exciting, intense Natalie Venetia Belcon), the diva of the album, and her regrets about breaking with her sister and betraying colleagues when she signs a singing contract and remains in Cuba. There are many weepy scenes as the older versions of Omara, her friends Compay, Ruben and Ibrahim look back on their former selves (played by younger actors) with predictable mixed emotions.
But the heart and soul of this exciting piece are the songs from the original album which form the score, along with Saheem Ali’s vibrant staging and the expressive choreography by the married team of Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck. The intimate Linda Gross Theater is transformed into a pulsating bistro, full of unforgettable colorful music with an irresistible Cuban rhythm. Along with the magnificent Venetia Belcon, there are sizzling turns from Kenya Browne (as the younger Omara), Danaya Esperanza (as her sister Haydee), Julio Monge (older Compay), Olly Sholotan and Mel Seme (younger and older Ibrahim). But the real star is the fabulous band led by music director Marco Paguia who also provided orchestrations and arrangements. Dean Sharenow is music supervisor and Renesito Avich, Julio Monge, Leonardo Reyna, Hery Paz, and Jared Machado are just a few of the exceptional musicians featured. Buena Vista Social Club is the hottest ticket of the season.
I Can Get It for You Wholesale is not based on real events, but the Classic Stage Company revival of the 1962 rarely-seen curio does explore jarring issues of anti-semitism while providing a taste of mid-20th century entertainment, Broadway style. John Weidman has revised the book by his father Jerome Weidman, casting the story of a Depression-era garment district manipulator in stark, dark tones. Mainly known as the show which provided Barbra Streisand with her Main Stem debut, Wholesale ran for 300 performances and quietly disappeared. Trip Cullman’s tight, energetic production restores its place in the repertoire. Harold Rome’s score soars and Cullman’s direction drives the plot along at a brisk pace. (Mark Wendland’s set which resembles a sweat shop facilitates quick changes with its multiple desks on rollers.)
Santino Fontana is an attractive shark as Harry Bogen, the avaricious rag-trader who sells out his girl, his best friend, and his soul for a quick buck. His charm manages to convince us Harry could get away with anything. Julia Lester nearly steals the show in the Streisand role of Miss Marmelstein, the efficient secretary longing to be called by her first name. Judy Kuhn is steely as Harry’s mother, particularly when she realizes she is the one who made him an immoral crook. Rebecca Naomi Jones makes the most of the girlfriend role and Adam Grupper has a memorable cameo as an older clothier even more ruthless than Harry.
Wholesale may be from a bygone era of musical comedy, but this new production avoids the cliches of the genre which Ohio and Buena Vista employ too much. But all three shows are worth catching.
How to Dance in Ohio ****
Opened Dec. 10 for an open run. Belasco Theater, 111 W. 44th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission. telecharge.com.
Photography: Curtis Brown
Buena Vista Social Club ****
Dec. 13—Jan. 21. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St. NYC. Running time: two hours including intermission. ovationtix.com.
Photography: Ahron R. Foster
I Can Get It for You Wholesale ****
Oct. 30—Dec. 17. Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission. classicstage.org.
Photography: Julieta Cervantes