NEW YORK — The most notable thing about the new musical “How to Dance in Ohio” isn’t that it stars seven autistic actors, although it’s a Broadway first. It tells the stories: a group of real, young, neurologically atypical people in Columbus, Ohio, all preparing for prom together, a proxy for the transition to adulthood.
The point of this show at the Belasco Theater is simple enough: Autistic people must approach traditional rites of passage — applying to college, putting off a first job, buying a prom dress, getting a date and risking rejection, slow dancing, kissing. – in much more complex ways than neurotypical youth, but they desire and deserve all of these things just as much. This program’s message is equally clear: Self-determination is key, and well-intentioned helpers and counselors from outside this community must navigate the fine line between assistance and condescension.
Adapted from Alexandra Shiva’s 2015 HBO documentary, “How to Dance in Ohio” seems to take cues at some moments. “Prom” an earlier Broadway musical about unconventional teenagers. But this show focused on the actors and Broadway do-gooders; The great thing about “How to Dance in Ohio” is that it centers on seven characters from a mainstream American city and the seven performers who play them, all making their Broadway debuts.
This diverse septet of Desmond Luis Edwards, Amelia Fei, Madison Kopec, Liam Pearce, Imani Russell, Conor Tague and Ashley Wool deliver excellent performances and, more importantly, they gel together as a very memorable and mutually supportive ensemble. When you leave a musical wishing you spent more time with its characters, it means a lot of things were done right.
All that said, “How to Dance in Ohio,” which features a book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik and music by Jacob Yandura, doesn’t always achieve its goals. He tends to moralize and preach, tell rather than show, especially when his true ability to improve the world is contained in his own details. Instead of focusing relentlessly on the most important and entertaining characters, the piece focuses on counselor Dr. It spends too much time on the boring and predictable story of Amigo (Caesar Samayoa). way of its customers. The audience has already understood the show’s message, and paradoxically this reluctance to let kids dominate their own stories actually falls into the trap the show is trying to eliminate.
Yandura’s score is an intriguing and artistic composition, but it also doesn’t know when to get out of the way, allowing the actors to have fun with a good book scene without underlining it too much. You can sense that the audience is ready to cheer for a multitude of performers, and they do as much as they can, but there are ways to focus the shows on young stars, and this piece that could use more development work doesn’t always do that. O. Sometimes music illuminates beautifully, sometimes it disturbs.
I imagine the show has a lot of complicated internal debates about how to best promote the issues it cares about. But characters constantly tell us that what they need is honesty and integrity, and there are times when a show that’s overly concerned about condescension could better listen to its true inner voices. There are some missed opportunities here; For the show to work, the audience needs to pick up on the characters’ difference – and yet you get the sense that it’s worried enough about that to try to act like other musicals. When he isn’t, he’s at his best.
All that said, there’s no doubt that people across the spectrum—a large audience—will see and feel things here that they’ve never felt before in a Broadway show; Additionally, the production has been designed simply by Robert Brill, clearly aiming to avoid the kind of bells and whistles that might cause stress in some people.
Parents are also featured in this show, offering a poignant window into the challenges of being the father or mother of an autistic child: the intensity of concern and love, but also the increasing difficulty of truly letting them go so that they can thrive in their own choices.
This is a public service performed by “How to Dance in Ohio,” but the real achievement here is the long-overdue empowerment of a group of people on whose diverse accomplishments an entire nation depends for much more than one might realize.
“How to Dance in Ohio” on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York; howtodanceinohiomusical.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.