An unexpectedly touching new musical, How to Dance in Ohio, with book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik and music by Jacob Yandura, is currently at Broadway’s beautifully restored Belasco Theatre. Based on the documentary film of the same name by Alexandra Shiva, the show focuses on seven young people along the autism spectrum, living in Ohio, who face the idea of holding a formal dance under the guidance of their therapist. Together, they confront the usual teen angst surrounding a prom compounded by their own developmental problems. Like all teenagers, the autistic teens in the show are starting to learn that the coping mechanisms that have served them up until now may have to be changed or replaced as they enter adult life.
Their therapist is not only trying to encourage his patients but also moderate the expectations and doubts of their parents. The pressures he puts on himself cause him to overlook crucial signals from his patients. On top of that, he is trying to get his assistant – his own grown daughter – to pursue her injury-stalled dance career against her desire to choose her own career path.
Melocik and Yandura’s show captures the anxieties of teens becoming young adults. The seven actors playing the autistic teens plus their understudies all identify as being on the autism spectrum themselves. By bringing their unique personal experiences of living with Autism Spectrum Disorder to their roles, they help dispel common misconceptions about autism – including their own.
The cast, under the sensitive direction of Sammi Cannold and choreographed by Mayte Natalio, disarmingly captures the audience from the start, when the seven therapy patients — actors all making their Broadway debuts — line the stage to welcome us into their story. In alphabetical order, they are: Desmond Luis Edwards as Remy, a flamboyant Black queer podcaster exploring their identity; Amelia Fei as freshman college student Caroline; Madison Kopec as Marideth, the newest patient, who uses facts to build defensive walls; Liam Pearce as Drew, who links his passion for electrical circuitry design to the functioning of his brain; Imani Russell as Mel, the longest patient, who uses her focus on routine to cope with her pet store job; Conor Tague as the hyper-impulsive Tommy; and Ashley Wool as Jessica, who is fixated on butterflies, both physical and emotional.
They are joined in the propulsive opening number, “Today Is”, by their parents (Haven Burton, Carlos L. Encinias, Nick Gaswirth, Melina Kalomas, and, at the performance I attended, understudy Marina Pires), therapist Dr. Emilio Amigo (Caesar Samayoa), and his daughter Ashley (Cristina Sastre). Other outstanding songs include “Under Control”, “Terminally Human”, “Reincarnation”, “Nothing at All”, and “Building Momentum”. The energy and emotional honesty of the entire cast sweep the audience along right up to the show’s finale.
The fluid set design by Robert Brill makes full use of a large center stage turntable along with set pieces gliding in and out of both wings. Sarafina Bush’s costumes are perfect in expressing character, from everyday wear to Remy’s exuberant costumes to prom attire. The lighting designs of Bradley King and sound designs of Connor Want enhanced the action on stage without pulling focus away from it.
Describing the plot of How to Dance in Ohio may make it sound like a Hallmark movie. But in emotional depth and acting honesty it is far superior. It is funny and heart-wrenching, and might remind audiences of how they coped with their own teen years. It is, in short, a magnificent piece, and I cannot more strongly urge you to make the trip to New York and learn How to Dance in Ohio!
How to Dance in Ohio is at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street in New York. For more information, or to purchase tickets online, go to howtodanceinohiomusical.com; to purchase tickets by phone, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.