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How to Dance in Ohio

  • Theater, Musicals
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
How to Dance in Ohio
Photograph: Courtesy Curtis BrownHow to Dance in Ohio

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A new Broadway musical celebrates autistic achievement.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

Broadway musicals are pageants for underdogs: outsiders who, dancing to unconventional beats, stand out from the synchronized, anonymized chorus. From Annie Oakley, Fanny Brice and Maria von Trapp to Tracy Turnblad, Elphaba and Alexander Hamilton, the genre exalts the value of nonconformity. And the sweet, uplifting new musical How to Dance in Ohio, which depicts a group of autistic people as they prepare for a social event, guides this tradition in a joyful new direction. Refracted through the show’s prism, the Great White Way’s spotlight fans out into a spectrum. 

Since autism entails difficulty with verbal and physical communication, it may seem an unlikely match for the hyperexpressive style of musical theater. But How to Dance in Ohio turns this challenge into an opportunity; Rebekah Greer Melocik’s words and Jacob Yandura’s music provide access into inner worlds that their characters struggle to articulate outwardly. When shrinking violet Marideth (a touchingly vulnerable Madison Kopec) shares factoids about Australia with her father, for instance, it may seem to him like a simple nonsequitur, but we hear what’s in her head: “Australia is a lesson / In what isolation and distance can do. / A land of unlikely animals, / So strange they couldn’t possibly be true.” At moments like these throughout the show, Melocik and Yandura make the most of what theater is uniquely well-equipped to do: They turn a wall into a window. 

In adapting the musical from Alexandra Shiva’s 2015 documentary, Melocik has redistributed or expanded some of the film’s stories and added a few of her own: “This show is based on things that actually happened, but parts have been embellished for dramatic purposes,” Kopec explains at the start of the show. “You have to spice things up in Ohio.” The three women at the center of the movie—Marideth, Caroline (Amelia Fei) and Jessica (Ashley Wool)—are now joined by four composite characters: two guys, Drew (Liam Pearce) and Tommy (Conor Tague), and the gender-nonconforming Mel (Amini Russell) and Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards). 

How to Dance in Ohio | Photograph: Courtesy Curtis Brown

These seven young people are members of a group-therapy circle overseen by the aptly named Dr. Amigo (Caesar Samayoa), who decides to organize a prom-like spring formal to help them hone their social skills. An onstage clock ticks down the days as they prepare for the big night, managing their anxieties and frustrations—and those of their parents and coworkers—while wrestling with questions like whom to invite and what to wear. This process itself is something of a dance: two steps forward, one step back. But the emphasis, even more than in the film, is on the characters’ capacity for independence, connection and accomplishment. This approach is mirrored and reinforced by the show’s casting. All of the actors playing autistic people publicly identify as autistic themselves; they’re also all making their Broadway debuts, and while some are more experienced than others—Pearce, with his expansively emotional voice, is a ringer—they all make winsome impressions. (Neurotypical actors fill out the side roles, including the somewhat extraneous one of Dr. Amigo's daughter.)

Directed with sensitivity by Sammi Cannold, How to Dance in Ohio is an underdog itself: a modest production of an original musical that originated in Syracuse, New York, and—like another sincerely inspirational audience-pleaser, Come From Away—rose on its own merits, without big stars, hit songs or well-known pop-culture IP.  “Going places / I am going places / There are places I need to be,” sing the actors in the opening number. “But most of the spaces / That I want to get to / Were not designed for me.” Whether it was designed for them or not, they’ve made their own space on Broadway now, and proved that they belong. 

How to Dance in Ohio. Belasco Theatre (Broadway). Book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik. Music by Jacob Yandura. Directed by Sammi Cannold. With Liam Pearce, Madison Kopec, Caesar Samayoa, Amelia Fei, Imani Russell, Ashley Wool, Desmond Edwards, Conor Tague. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.

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How to Dance in Ohio | Photograph: Courtesy Curtis Brown

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


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