Review: ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ Welcomes Autistic Youth Under the Disco Ball

Though clearly made with love, this musical adaptation of an HBO documentary about autistic people learning to dance tries to balance good intentions and razzle-dazzle will mixed results.

The company of How to Dance in Ohio. Curtis Brown

How to Dance in Ohio | 2hrs 25mins. One intermission. | Belasco Theatre | 111 W 44th St | 212-239-6200

Want to see an excellent Broadway musical about neurodivergent young adults who battle social anxiety to find romance? Too bad; Dear Evan Hansen closed last year. However, the producers of How to Dance in Ohio hope you’ll choose an alternative: this well-intentioned but scattershot adaptation of the HBO documentary about autistic people learning how to partner up and shake booty. 

Translating nonfiction films into musicals has a checkered history. For every inspired Grey Gardens there’s a rattling jalopy like Hands on a Hardbody. How to Dance falls, I’m afraid, at the latter end of the range, taking the premise of the movie and adding diversity, contrived conflict, and razzle-dazzle with mixed results. It has trouble finding a single point of focus and balancing the needs of drama with a positive message of self-empowerment. 

While the 2015 doc was weighted towards the hopes and fears of three women aged 16 to 22 preparing for a dance organized by their gung-ho therapist, book writer and lyricist Rebekah Greer Melocik expands roles for four others, including a pair of affable young men and two queer people of color. (Some characters are based on real Ohioans in the film.) In total, we have seven ND heroes to root for. Group-portrait musicals have had successful antecedents—from A Chorus Line to Assassins—but they require a high level of craft. From their overly busy opening number, “Today Is,” Melocik and composer Jacob Yandura throw a bunch of kids and adults at us, singing about getting up in the morning—and bafflement vies with boredom. 

Caesar Samayoa (center) and the cast of How to Dance in Ohio. Curtis Brown

When things do settle down, the creative team spends too much time with kindly Dr. Amigo (Caesar Samayoa) and his daughter, Ashley (Cristina Sastre). He runs a program to help people on the spectrum with social skills; she studies dance at Juilliard, but a recent injury has her rethinking her career. Dr. Amigo insists Ashley continue her studies, which drives a rather uninteresting wedge between them. The good doctor also jumps at the chance to publicize the “Spring Formal,” which leads to a tone-deaf blog post (damn you, bloggers!) which offends Amigo’s autistic clients. If How to Dance were less concerned with being a commercial property—if it leaned into the beauty and uniqueness of its characters more—it wouldn’t revert to hacky devices like intergenerational angst and media misrepresentation. 

Because the actors who play the main subjects of How to Dance (all making Broadway debuts) are the best thing about it. They make a cheerful pre-show announcement from the lip of the stage: not only do they play autistic people; they are autistic. A laudable example of “nothing about us without us,” even if it adds a layer of interpretative trickiness. What exactly am I looking at? Professional actors on the spectrum playing fictional versions of real people with their own quirks—exaggerated to fill a Broadway house in a highly stylized theatrical genre? If a character sings or dances in a non-normative way, is that down to the actor or the character or real-life inspiration? To be honest, such questions are largely academic; the actors all perform with tremendous charm and skill, blending into their roles as any trouper would. 

Madison Kopec (center) and the cast of How to Dance in Ohio. Curtis Brown

I wish this colorful crowd been trusted to carry the show. It includes Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards), a teddy-bearish cosplay enthusiast who posts videos of them dressed as real and fictional celebrities (from Donna Summer to Mr. Clean); Caroline (Amelia Fei) is very femme and a bit too much into her offstage boyfriend; Marideth (Madison Kopec) is painfully shy and drawn to science books; Drew (Liam Pearce) is tall, good-looking, and all about electrical engineering; deadpan cool Mel (Imani Russell) likes to quote Audre Lord and works at a pet store; our resident Lord of the Rings supernerd is Jessica (Ashley Wool); and happy-go-lucky Tommy (Conor Tague) just wants to drive his brother’s car. 

The best songs in a generally bland pop score (redolent of Spring Awakening and, yes, Dear Evan Hansen) provide a window into the neurodivergent mind through metaphor. Studying a book on Australian wildlife, Marideth reflects on how the continent’s isolation has created surprising new species—a tacit reflection on her own life. Drew’s interest in electrical systems leads to a realization that humans and machines are different but analogous: “Circuits have wires / People have veins. / Wires carry light / veins carry blood.” Unfortunately, not everyone gets equally memorable solo numbers; the piece founders between establishing one strong narrative thread and spreading the wealth. 

Generically staged by Sammi Cannold, How to Dance in Ohio was clearly made with love and will touch some hearts—on the spectrum or not—but feels synthetic and patchy when not outright tacky. Even the triumphant final fête, in which our heroes get to strut their stuff, is overshadowed by a head-scratching design choice (sets by Robert Brill). Drew, tasked with organizing the “Second Chance Dance” in a day (!) unveils and hangs a jumbo disco ball which he somehow had time to decorate. The giant orb is festooned with mauve flowers and shiny heart-shaped balloons—and it bears an unfortunate resemblance to the CDC illustration of the novel coronavirus. I cringed, but maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. One person’s deadly pathogen is another’s fascinating pattern. 

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Review: ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ Welcomes Autistic Youth Under the Disco Ball