Review: In 'How to Dance in Ohio,' making autism sing

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Sunday, May 19, 2024

Review: In 'How to Dance in Ohio,' making autism sing
From left, Desmond Luis Edwards, Ashley Wool, Imani Russell, Liam Pearce, Madison Kopec, Conor Tague, and Amelia Fei in “How to Dance in Ohio” at the Belasco Theater in Manhattan, on Nov. 14, 2023. The musical, directed by Sammi Cannold, features a cast of young actors who are all making their Broadway debuts. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- It would have been enough of a first for a Broadway musical to tell a respectful or even vaguely authentic story about autistic people. On the rare occasions we have seen such characters represented in commercial productions, they have mostly been objects of pity, mockery or fear.

So, it is a welcome change that the seven autistic characters in “How to Dance in Ohio” are presented, without condescension, as young adults a lot like most others, albeit with unusual gifts and challenges. That they are also played by autistic performers makes the feel-good show, which opened Sunday at the Belasco Theater, more than a first: It’s a milestone.

With all that groundbreaking, perhaps it is no surprise that the production is otherwise very conventional, sometimes dispiritingly so. Just as the characters struggle to conform to the expectations of a neurotypical world, you feel the musical doing a similar thing, looking to traditional models (such as “The Prom”) instead of offbeat ones (such as “Kimberly Akimbo”) that would be a better fit. And although the result is sometimes uplifting, the uplift comes at the expense of the depth and complexity the show might have achieved were it not so intent on cheerful persuasion.

Certainly, in its brightness, it is nothing like its source material, a 2015 documentary also called “How to Dance in Ohio.” Set at Amigo Family Counseling, a real Columbus mental health center for autistic people, the film, by Alexandra Shiva, highlights the experiences of several clients preparing for a spring formal. Over about 16 weeks, they practice specific applications of the life skills Dr. Emilio Amigo and his staff have been teaching them more generally, whether those skills are social (how to ask for a date), emotional (how to deal with rejection) or physical (how to do the Wobble).

The documentary’s tone is objective and thus often dour. Not all its stories are happy: We see some clients struggle to speak, let alone dance. Even for the others, the excitement of the event is countered by fear — both theirs and that felt by their parents, whose faces have been worn by years of worry. By not making the obstacles seem easily surmountable, the movie respects everyone’s hard work, regardless of success.

To replicate that approach, however truthful, would be a big downer — and, for a commercial show, a fool’s errand. So, the musical, directed by Sammi Cannold, instead starts from an assumption of ability and excellence. The young actors, all making their Broadway debuts, are highly skilled, sparkly cute and perfectly comfortable holding the stage.

That makes their characters seem perfectly comfortable, too. When best friends Caroline (Amelia Fei) and Jessica (Ashley Wool) go to Macy’s with their mothers to buy twirly gowns, you feel that they don’t need, as in the movie, constant assistance and reassurance — just a credit card. And although Tommy, a superhero fan preparing for his driving test, tells us he has “trouble making facial expressions,” the evidence of Conor Tague’s performance says otherwise. His facial expressions, like those of any good actor, would be legible from the back of the Belasco.

Lacking the movie’s fundamental contrast of hopes and abilities, the show, by Rebekah Greer Melocik (book and lyrics) and Jacob Yandura (music), focuses on flimsier conflicts. Jessica doesn’t like Caroline’s (unseen) boyfriend, who is too possessive. Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards) gets some hostile comments on his YouTube cosplay channel. Drew (Liam Pearce) is concerned about attending the prominent university that accepts him. (He’s an engineering savant.) Mel (Imani Russell) has trouble handling criticism once promoted to Head of Reptiles at the local Paws and Claws.

Only Marideth (Madison Kopec) retains some of the complexity of the real character on which she is based, at least as seen in the film. When upset by social situations she cannot handle, she may freeze in fear or race out of the room, often into the comfort of the alternative universes she visits on her computer or the real-world facts she collects compulsively. (“You have more bones in your feet than in the rest of your body combined.”) This outlook is beautifully established in “Unlikely Animals,” a number that, like many of the show’s songs, has a thoughtful and poetic (and on-the-nose) hook. “Australia is a lesson,” she sings, “in what isolation and distance can do.”

Even so, “How to Dance in Ohio” does not permit much doubt that Marideth and the others will have fun at the formal and achieve at least moderate independence beyond it. To take up the slack, the authors have displaced the story’s crisis onto Amigo (Caesar Samayoa) himself. An anodyne and often peripheral figure in the movie, he here makes a series of peremptory and bizarre missteps that, in the doldrums of the second act, alienate him from his clients, their parents and, for good measure, his own daughter, Ashley (Cristina Sastre), who works at the clinic and likewise blunders in her dealings with Mel. We are meant to understand that it’s not the autistic characters who need to change but the neurotypical ones.

Fair enough, but that story, warmly acted if clumsily executed in a series of impossible hairpin turns, isn’t as distinctive or compelling as the one the movie tells.

This being a musical, the compensation is meant to be in the songs, and there is much about Yandura’s music and Melocik’s lyrics to admire.

The opening, “Today Is,” in which we meet the clients as they build their lives from bits of memorized routines, is cleverly set to scalelike phrases reminiscent of piano exercises. The expected number at Macy’s turns out to be not for Caroline and Jessica but for their mothers, with the touching refrain “I want to see a picture of my daughter getting ready for the dance.” Throughout, the phrase “how to,” sung by almost everyone as they stumble their way forward — “how to set clear boundaries,” “how to manage long-term grief” — suggests that people have more in common than their different kinds of wiring might suggest.

But stepping too hard on the dramatic accelerator, the book strips its gears as it goes along, often resorting to advocacy jargon (“nothing about us without us”) and flat-out cheerleading. Nor can the minimal production do much to deliver the oomph it clearly wants as the story reaches for a Broadway ending.

Perhaps it’s enough that “How to Dance in Ohio” offers solace and encouragement in a mild, conventional package. (There are cool-down spaces for those who need them, as one of the actors explains in welcoming the audience.) Doing sweet, reparative work for any part of humanity means doing sweet, reparative work for it all.

‘How to Dance in Ohio’At the Belasco Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Today's News

December 12, 2023

Derek Fordjour's cabinet of wonders

Ernest and Ella Brummer Collection quadruples estimate selling prices in Hindman's auction

Getty acquires three captivating paintings

Painting by Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949) coming to sale at Olympia Auctions

A breathtaking private French collection of nine Pre and Post WW2 French classics to be offered at Osenat

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts welcomes Elie Glyn as new Director of Exhibition Design and Production

Now on view 'Candida Alvarez: Multihyphenate' at Monique Meloche Gallery

Gallerie d'Italia's tribute to Joseph Rebell and the enchanting beauty of 19th-century Naples'

Who's a 'Colonizer'? How an old word became a new weapon

'IX' solo exhibition of large canvases by Richard Zinon on view at Cadogan Gallery

A world map with no national borders and 1,642 animals

Arms & Armour sale at Olympia Auctions ends the year with strong prices

Royal College of Art announces Pokémon Scholars for 2023

Maria Emilia Martin, creator of Public Radio's 'Latino USA,' dies at 72

Phillips expands 20th Century & Contemporary Art leadership team in Asia

28th edition of miart in Milan aims to confirm central role in art market and expand boundries

CCP and MMCA present "Wonders and Witness: Contemporary Photography from Korea"

'Bzzz' turns art forms of solo virtuosity into a group affair

Review: In 'How to Dance in Ohio,' making autism sing

Jon Fosse wants to say the unsayable

'Body Sculpture' new animatronic sculpture commissioned for the National Gallery's collection

Somerset House Studios announces the relaunch of project space G31

Gordon Parks's mid-century aesthetic exhibition curated by 2022 Genevieve Young Fellow Nicole R. Fleetwood now open

Luxembourg Pavilion welcomes over 102,000 visitors at the 18th Biennale di Venezia International Architecture Exhibition

Are Online Dating Apps Worth the Journey - Are They Selling Hope or Forgiveness?

Inside the Gaming Industry: A Deep Dive into the Latest Trends and Innovations

High Impact Wall Trends You Should Know

Effortless Personalization: Transform Phone Pics into Cherished Photo Prints

The Essential Guide to Domestic Wire Transfers: What You Need to Know

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

sa gaming free credit
Truck Accident Attorneys
Accident Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful