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The Too-Steady Charm of How to Dance in Ohio

“Isn’t it nice to know what’s going on?” So say the actors at the stop of the show in How to Dance in Ohio, after providing a quick rundown of everything we’re to expect from the production: There will be singing, dancing, no audience participation, events based on real life, and autistic actors playing autistic characters. Their announcement implicitly welcomes autistic audience members, too, noting that there are resources available should anyone feel overwhelmed by the spectacle, and including a few in-jokes. “There’s a saying, ‘if you’ve met one autistic person… you’ve met one autistic person,’” says one actor, a line (seemingly originating from the advocate Dr. Stephen Shore), and it plays well in a crowd that’s heard it before.

At its best, How to Dance in Ohio carries on in that inclusive spirit. The show’s seven young-adult main characters are played by seven charming young autistic actors, and it’s full of material that might be familiar to those also on the spectrum or with autistic friends or family members—the first song, for instance, is about the comfort of a steady routine. One group member, Mel (Imani Russell) has trouble with their boss at a pet shop who doesn’t understand their direct form of communication; another, Caroline (Yi-Hsuan Fei), has started taking college courses, but gets confused when her exam isn’t in the room she expects. These are, to How to Dance in Ohio’s credit, not all stories of hardship: Remy (Desmond Edwards) delights in running a cosplay tutorial channel from home in front of a ring light.

The musical is based on the 2015 documentary of the same name (streamable on Max) about autistic young adults preparing for a spring formal at their group-therapy center. Rebekah Greer Melocik, who wrote the book and lyrics of the adaptation, and Jacob Yandura, who wrote the score, first started working on the musical with the late Harold Prince, and then moved forward with its current director Sammi Cannold. (Neither Cannold nor Yandura nor Melocik is autistic, and all are also Broadway newcomers, though Cannold has also taken on another Prince work with her version of Evita.) In adapting the documentary, the show keeps the central conceit, as well as many of the subjects’ names and general traits, but sets it to song and throws in a few extra complications. “You have to spice things up in Ohio,” goes another line from that introduction.

That’s all the right instinct: Whether you’re talking about The Prom or Follies, it’s always a good idea to set a musical about people all convening for An Event. That provides a dramatic structure, as well as the opportunity to split material up among an ensemble—not to mention a good reason for everyone to talk about singing and dancing in the first place. The problem here is one of execution. Yandura’s pop-rock score has a few memorable melodies—Liam Pearce, a standout as the overachieving Drew, has two good tenor solos near the stand and end of the show—but too much of it is taken up with blurry mid-tempo group numbers that struggle to differentiate themselves. You’ll almost surely think of similar, though more distinctive, scores for issue dramas like Next to Normal or Dear Evan Hansen. Cannold must have been thinking about those shows, too, because as much as she’s following in Prince’s footsteps, the staging more resembles the sterilized surfaces of Michael Greif. A scene where a story goes viral is “You Will Be Found” v. 2.0—though at least, this time around, the show is explicit about the ways in which its characters are neurodivergent.

There’s also that added spice, which is of a generic variety and takes the form of obvious plotting. The show provides the therapist Dr. Amigo (a diligently earnest Caesar Samayoa) with a convoluted home life, including a divorce and a strained relationship with his dancer daughter (Cristina Sastre). There’s also a Goofus-and-Gallant pairing of a meddlesome blogger (I accept that all bloggers in fiction must be evil and/or inept, but c’mon) and a do-gooder newspaper reporter, both of whom try to convince Dr. Amigo to let them cover the event.

It may be that this show just transferred too quickly: It leapt to Broadway after a run at Syracuse Stage in 2022, and so many of the structural issues are the sorts of things that get ironed out with more time in development. Much of the second act, especially, is at the point where the authors get so concerned with underlining a message that the characters stop sounding like actual people. It often becomes a show about how Dr. Amigo has accidentally drawn a spotlight toward himself instead of his students—a fine enough point to make, but along the way How to Dance in Ohio makes the same mistake. A plot about whether Drew will commit to going to the University of Michigan, for instance, becomes too much about how Dr. Amigo feels about pressuring him to go and less about Drew’s own anxieties.

But it’s a credit to How to Dance in Ohio’s cast that they deliver compelling performances, even when their material gets rote and didactic. There’s a story involving the friendship between Fei’s Caroline and Ashley Wool’s Jessica as it’s unsettled when one of them gets a boyfriend and another sweet but anxiety-tinged scene where their parents take them dress-shopping for the dance. The show is at its best when it slows down for moments like that, and when it stays specific. The group’s newcomer, Marideth, slowly opens up and becomes more confident over the course of the show, and Madison Kopec keeps you with her in every scene, aware of each step forward as well as the occasional and inevitable steps back. She and Pearce are especially winning together when Marideth and Drew sweetly and awkwardly flirt, though there aren’t enough scenes of them together for that storyline to hit home. To hark back to that introduction at the top of the show: If we’re here to meet these characters who aren’t going to be stand-ins for generalized traits, let’s really spend the time to get to know them all.

How to Dance in Ohio is at the Belasco Theatre.


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Jackson McHenry , 2023-12-11 02:45:42

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