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Broadway Musical Is a First

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Going (or not going) to the big dance has been an irresistible storyline for musicals from “Oklahoma!” to “The Prom.” The set-up inherently inspires social stress, romantic anxiety, comic potential and, of course, dancing.

The new musical “How to Dance in Ohio” tells that story too, but from a different, heightened perspective. The show, which premiered at Syracuse Stage last year, is based on Alexandra Shiva’s 2015 HBO documentary about a group counseling center in Columbus, Ohio, where autistic young adults prepare for a spring formal.

In a Broadway first, seven actors on the autistic spectrum play the autistic characters. But first they begin the show by stepping out on stage as themselves to gently brief the audience: “There’s this saying, ‘If you’ve met one autistic person… you have met one autistic person,’” says Conor Tague with a sly smile. “You are now meeting seven autistic people.” It’s a great line and an apt one, because the show then sets out to present a group of self-aware and highly individual characters as they try to cope with a world that they sometimes don’t quite understand and that sometimes doesn’t understand them.

It’s a big-hearted, earnest musical performed by an eager, confident and appealing cast, playing characters—some more richly drawn than others—who find safety in routines, rules and control but also recognize the need to break free. Their efforts in seeking that independence are liberating, terrifying and joyous, sometimes all at once.

But “How to Dance in Ohio” is also an uneven show. With music by Jacob Yandura and book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik, it is often too much telling and not enough showing. Dialogue can land like slogans (which elicit cheers from the audience), points are made and re-made in capital letters, and a save-the-day ending feels awkward. Perhaps that’s to be said for any groundbreaking show that introduces audiences to a community that did not previously have a voice on stage.

Still, the musical is entertaining, with a lively pop score that mostly works and some fine performances. The first act is especially engaging as we get to know the young people, their families and their days. We see the interactions among parents, counselors, and especially the magnificent seven as they deal with the hopes and fears that any young adult has in learning social cues, making small talk, choosing the right outfit, asking for a date, and learning to dance.

What works best are the moments that sneak up on you: the surprising bits and pieces that define characters, and the quiet scenes without agendas. There’s a beguiling song, “Unlikely Animals,” about Australia and its strange critters, which is sung beautifully by Madison Kopec (in the role of the fact-obsessive Marideth). That song resonates so much more deeply than the numbers that simply explain the characters with exposition, or the ones that explicitly spell out emotions.

But as the big dance date approaches, new narrative conflicts appear, created for the musical for dramatic purposes. They feel contrived and distracting—and  lengthen the show’s running time.

One involves a rogue blogger and another deals with the center’s amiable counselor (Caesar Samoa), who pressures his college-age daughter (Christina Sastre) to remain in Juilliard’s dance program though she wants to work at the center. There’s even a left-field romance for the counselor. Though these awkward insertions reflect the theme of the universal difficulties of not seeing people for who they really are, it takes the focus away from the core group of seven.

Under director Sammi Cannold’s staging, the actors perform with verve, commitment and authenticity — and, in a few cases, show some real star power. Liam Pearce, as the engineering-loving Drew who finds safety in literal numbers, is sensational, with a voice that soars with emotion and which solidly lands the show’s big number, suitably called “Building Momentum.” He also has, to use the word of the year, undeniable rizz.

As a young woman making a strong push for independence, Ashley Wool is another a delight. Desmond Luis Edwards, Amelia Fei and Imani Russell round out the neurodiverse septet, all having their moments in the spotlight.

The show is dedicated to the famed director-producer Hal Prince, who was instrumental in the musical’s early development before his death in 2019. Despite its flaws, it’s a loving tribute to him as well as to the transformative power of musicals.

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