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'How to Dance in Ohio' review — shining cast hits the right steps in this touching musical

Read our four-star review of How to Dance in Ohio, the musical based on the Peabody Award-winning documentary of the same name about autistic, young adults.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

At the heart of the wonderfully performed but uneven musical How to Dance in Ohio beats a reality for its key characters that is at once simple and profound.

It arrives in a song by the show’s creators, Broadway newcomers Rebekah Greer Melocik (book and lyrics) and Jacob Yandura (music): “I like to socialize but don’t know how.”

The deep, all-too-human desire to connect — and the steep challenge to do so — is amplified for seven autistic, young adults in Columbus, Ohio. They interact with the world in their own ways, but their group counselor believes a spring formal could help his clients make important breakthroughs. Life is a sort of dance, after all.

That poetic point comes through loud and clear in Alexandra Shiva’s 2015 same-named documentary inspiring the show (in turn originated by the late Broadway showman Harold Prince; director Sammi Cannold took over following his death). But in its transition from screen to stage, the gently gripping, low-key true-life story has become broader and less subtle. “Parts have been embellished for dramatic purposes,” an actor tells us in a prologue.

Characters have been invented, as have subplots about divorce, deaths, career dilemmas, and college acceptances. Anxiety is in the air as the group prepares for the prom and deals with daily life — from hygiene to personal safety to decisions about college. A countdown clock ticks down days on the set, where letters are scattered, alphabet soup-style. Presumably, it’s a peek at neurodiverse brains. Some of the narrative embroidery works, and some gets knotted.

The pleasant score, however, gives the whole cast a chance to shine. The seven young principal actors, all autistic, from the show's 2022 world premiere at Syracuse Stage reprise their roles on Broadway.

Desmond Luis Edwards’s Remy has a flair for the dramatic, Conor Tague’s Tommy is driven to get his license, Imani Russell’s Mel struggles for independence, while Ashley Wool’s Jessica and Amelia Fei’s Caroline are boy-crazy BFFs. Madison Kopec’s Marideth prefers facts over people, and Liam Pearce’s sensitive mathlete Drew reveals his big heart.

In a departure from the documentary, Drew stands out in a big way. His songs — “Under Control,” “Waves and Wires,” and “Building Momentum” — are rich in character and show off the score at its finest. Pearce nails each number.

Caroline's and Jessica’s moms, played respectively by Darlesia Clearcy and Haven Burton, share a lovely “Getting Ready for the Dance.” As their daughters shop for dresses, the women recall their proms and express hopes for their daughters.

When it comes to Dr. Amigo (Caesar Samayoa), the adaptation has two left feet. The revisionist focus on his divorce and issues with his daughter, Ashley (Christina Sastre), is miscalibrated. On stage, the tone-deaf doc also takes heat because a local blogger’s post about the prom ends up all about him.

How to Dance in Ohio wobbles in similar fashion. But in the end, this worthwhile musical finds the steps to an upbeat last dance.

How to Dance in Ohio is at the Belasco Theatre. Get How to Dance in Ohio tickets at New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Desmond Luis Edwards, Conor Tague, Ashley Wool, Liam Pearce, Imani Russell, Amelia Fei, and Madison Kopec in How to Dance in Ohio. (Photo by Curtis Brown)

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