‘How to Dance in Ohio’ is Broadway’s most original new musical
The Daily Beast
December 10, 2023
“How to Dance in Ohio,” a joyous, witty, and sharp musical based on the HBO documentary of the same name, brings to colorful life the experiences of a group of autistic teenagers.
The meaningful, welcome impact of How to Dance in Ohio is the twinned jolt of emotion and insight into a world you may not—if you are not autistic—have had much notion of. It’s that wonderful jolt you get when you hear or see or understand a new story, or a set of new perspectives. By the end of Rebecca Greer Melocik (book and lyrics) and Jacob Yandura’s (music) zesty, powerful Broadway musical (Belasco Theatre, booking to June 16, 2024) you will see the world if not differently, then in a more expansive way. It will stay with you.
Hopefully you will learn something, with—at different times—misted-up eyes and a huge smile on your face. And if you do know the world of these experiences, it will provide a different kind of cheer—an affirming one, of finally seeing a diversity of representations of the world you know on stage. (The theater has special spaces for those to rest and recharge for those who need them. This show proudly walks its talk.)
For this and many other reasons, How to Dance in Ohio, based on the award-winning HBO documentary of the same name, is the most original new musical on Broadway, featuring a group of young people with autism, facing various new chapters in their lives—independence, education, work, sex, self-expression, and love.
In a statement supplied to the media, the company says, “We bring this musical and these seven characters to our audience not as a representation of all neurodiversity, but from the perspective that this show aims to start a broader conversation regarding autism, disability, and inclusion in the commercial theater industry.”
The seven actors who play the core group of teens are autistic themselves, and the experiences of their characters are both specific to themselves—this point is made at the top of the show: judge those with autism as individuals, person to person, not as an amorphous, same-seeming group—while also having experiences that are, if special and unique to themselves, then shared in some ways by many. As the group tells us at the top of the show, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person!”
The young people are all members of the Columbus, Ohio, group run by Dr. Emilio Amigo (Caesar Samayoa), who—in his efforts to encourage the members of the group to interact effectively with the world around them—dreams up the idea of having a spring formal. Through the lens of preparations for the event (including picking outfits, learning to dance, and gahhh, getting a date), we see a group of teenagers in various kinds and stages of transition and challenge. The musical is both very funny, and filled with blunt, profound, and emphatic messages.
Marideth (Madison Kopec) is extremely nervous in her interactions with the group, and the world. Her song, “Unlikely Animals,” named after one of the subjects that interests her, is a beautifully expressed journey of difference and singularity. Drew (the charming Liam Pearce) is academically gifted, and figuring out where he would like to go to college—and he has a big crush on Marideth, and wants to ask her to be his date to the formal. Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards, having a ball, while saying a lot) has a wardrobe of outfits to show to the internet, but would prefer people keep their negative comments to themselves.
Caroline (Amelia Fei) has a boyfriend who we never meet, but who sounds like a major dud. Will she wake up to that, or risk losing her friendship with Jessica (the charmingly no-nonsense Ashley Wool)? We wait to see who will partner with Tommy (the extremely funny-with-just-one-glance Conor Tague).
Dr. Amigo also has a daughter, Ashley (Cristina Sastre), who is back in town from Juilliard, helping her dad run the group. She isn’t sure if she wants a career as a dancer, and her father wants her to have that career. Ashley is also struggling to revive a broken friendship with Mel (a standout Imani Russell, the show’s phlegmatic truth-teller—whose sharpest line highlights the economic discrimination that impacts the disabled).
Indeed, for all Dr. Amigo’s good intentions and warmly directed empowerment and cheerleading, his own lesson in the show is to listen to what the young people in the group want for themselves, rather than the desires he has for them.
We get to know the young people’s parents too. Mothers Terry (Haven Burton) and Johanna (Darlesia Cearcy) have a wonderful song (“Getting Ready for the Dance”), which contrasts finding the right dresses for their daughters with their own memories of finding the same many years ago. In trying to suggest attending the spring formal may be a good idea, Nick Gaswirth as Marideth’s dad Michael tries desperately, gently, and respectfully to try and make the withdrawn Marideth see there is a world outside her bedroom.
Melina Kalomas and Carlos L. Encinias as Drew’s parents are concerned that Dr. Amigo may be encouraging Drew in the wrong direction. For himself, Drew has one of the standout moments of humor in the show, laying out how a key email about his college future can be read differently—intended tone being so ambiguous in electronic correspondence.
The thorns of the show (because every show must have them) are a blogger and a journalist; the former whose insensitive, crass article is a riot of offensive terminology and lacking insight (an important, bracing lesson for a general audience). The latter has better intentions professionally, but Dr. Amigo himself may have misunderstood what she wants personally.
The stage itself is a meaningfully open space, ready to be occupied by the orange seats of Dr. Amigo’s meeting room, or a rail of prom dresses. The most striking component of Robert Brill’s design are a series of suspended letters of the alphabet.
Director Sammi Cannold told The Daily Beast: “The conceit came from listening to an interview with an autistic individual talking about how they—and many other autistic individuals they know—find satisfaction in organizing and compartmentalizing chaos, particularly when it comes to words and conversation. So the title (of the show) at the center of the stage is clarity emerging from chaos. In terms of any meaning to the specific letters, other than the title, it’s randomized with the exception of HP in the upper stage left corner, which is a tribute to Hal Prince and his work on the show.” Cannold and choreographer Mayte Natalio fill the stage with whirls of lively, zesty, natural movement, allowing each performer to stand out.
“An object at rest stays at rest,” Liam sings in his final song, “Building Momentum,” which is a song about crafting one’s own destiny, the future that makes sense to you. And in the decisions and end-points of the characters on stage—and in their final rock-out dance and singing—that is the emphatic common theme. The song is not a plea for understanding and acceptance of any kind. It is, like the rest of How to Dance in Ohio, a funny, joyful, and cheering assertion of both diversity and self-determination.
One other thing about their final number: it is no major spoiler to reveal that yes, they really do show us how to dance in Ohio.