Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 10, 2023
How to Dance in Ohio. Book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik. Music by Jacob Yandura. Based on the documentary film of the same title by Alexandra Shiva. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Choreography by Mayte Natalio. Set design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting design by Bradley King. Sound design Connor Wang. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Arranger Jacob Yandura. Music coordinator Michael Aarons. Additional music arrangements by Matt Gallagher. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Music director Lily Ling. Director of community engagement Becky Leifman. Artistic creative consultant Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt.
That is the impetus for and the thrust of the heart-felt show that, like Alexandra Shiva's 2015 documentary film of the same title on which it is based, follows a group of autistic late adolescents preparing for a formal dance under the guidance of their counselor, Dr. Amigo, played on stage by Caesar Samayoa. The group of seven characters has been working with Dr. Amigo in a nurturing environment that encourages and supports the development of their interpersonal workplace and social skills. The dance is meant to put their hard efforts to a practical and rewarding test.
As in the film, the musical goes to great pains to make sure we understand that the characters being depicted represent specific people, and that we should draw no general conclusions regarding the many manifestations of autism. Indeed, we are told directly in an introductory prologue, "if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person."
So meet seven such individuals and their talented portrayers. There's Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards), who posts self-made cosplay videos and whose dream is to "design movie costumes one day." There's Caroline (Amelia Fei), who talks a lot about her "first ever," if not-so-wonderful, boyfriend with whom she expects to attend the dance. There's Merideth (Madison Kopec), who finds comfort in her chosen world of non-fiction because "facts are safe, tried, and true." In a similar fashion, we learn about the others: Jessica (Ashley Wool), who loves everything related to dragons; Drew (Liam Pearce), who has been accepted into a prestigious college engineering program but is uncertain whether he wants to go; Mel (Imani Russell), who works in a pet shop and is hoping to be promoted to be "head of reptiles"; and Tommy (Conor Tague), who is striving to get his driver's license in time to be able to drive his brother's truck to the dance.
This is a coming-of-age story, or rather, a slice of a coming-of-age story, about a particular subset of adolescents whose angst, while shaped in no small part owing to their autism, is basically angst of the fairly universal type. Only occasionally does the show touch upon deeper questions, such as the extent to which the challenges of autism intersect with the sort of learned helplessness that is unintentionally imposed by well-meaning parents or counselors, causing the already-anxious characters to second-guess themselves and struggle with making personal decisions lest they mess up.
At least with the documentary film, we meet the actual autistic people (some of whom are well past the age of the members of this appealing group). The autistic actors, all making their Broadway debuts, perform with grace, charm, and skill, and it is wonderful to see the spotlight shining on them and on their characters. But it is unclear as to the intent of the show, which lacks much by way of character development, dramatic tension, or insight. Perhaps it adheres too closely to the more effective source material instead of exploring its points in greater depth, or perhaps the creative team sees it as a first step in the theatrical depiction of autistic characters. But even as we cheer them on and take delight in their triumphs, there is not enough here to make this a successful film-to-stage translation.