“How To Dance In Ohio,” the new musical that opened Sunday night at the Belasco Theatre, marks a laudable first for Broadway: A show about autistic persons who are actually played by actors on the autism spectrum.
That smart choice to bring some authenticity to a musical that otherwise leans hard on weepy Broadway cliches is far and away the best move its creators have made.
Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street.
They’ve cast an ideal core seven performers, who are all charming individually as well as when part of a tight ensemble.
But as groundbreaking as “How To Dance” is as an idea, its execution across the board does not match its admirable intentions.
The show, directed by Sammi Cannold, waffles between being stalely predictable and taking confounding narrative leaps. The plot and dialogue are shoddy, and early on it becomes apparent that we are unfortunately sitting at a missed opportunity.
Also off-putting is that the musical’s rightly expressed message — that people with autism should not be objects of pity or a means to someone else’s inspiration — is undone by a book (Rebekah Greer Melocik) and score (Melocik and Jacob Yandura) that can only manage two things with the subtlety of semi-truck: tears and uplift. Complexity, take a hike.
“How To Dance” is based on the much better 2015 documentary of the same name, which is available to stream on Max, about a group of young autistic adults who gather at Amigo Family Counseling in Columbus (the characters constantly bring up that they are, in fact, in Ohio) and prepare to attend their first spring formal.
That’s the sort of set-up that makes Broadway creatives slobber. Many musicals feature a consequential “school dance” from “West Side Story” to “The Prom” and, er, “Carrie.” Drama (and occasionally buckets of pig blood) thrives at them.
But the film is not about the dance. Instead, that climactic event allows the viewer to meet the documentary’s extraordinary subjects and gain a deeper, more human understanding of what their daily lives are like.
Unlike the overblown musical, the doc is not excessively and damagingly weighty.
For instance, in the movie, the kindhearted Dr. Emilio Amigo simply teaches the group useful life skills and organizes the formal.
But onstage, the character, who is played by Caesar Samayoa, meddles in the decisions of a young student named Drew (Liam Pearce) in a manner that borders on non-ethical. He goes to a bar and awkwardly hits on a newspaper reporter who’s writing about the dance. He bickers with his daughter Ashley (Cristina Sastre) as she considers dropping out of Juilliard.
All of a sudden, the marquee has changed to “How To Have A Mid-Life Crisis In Ohio.”
Using Amigo to shove in some empty calories to craft a more traditional musical defeats the purpose. The stories about the group members, not a flailing doctor, are why we’re there.
Drew (Pearce) is agonizingly trying to decide between studying engineering at University of Michigan or the more comfortable Ohio State. He also has a crush on Marideth (Madison Kopec), who is grounded by a love of facts. Mel (Imani Russell), who believes in reincarnation, is treated poorly at work at a pet store by an ignorant manager. And Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards) hosts a cosplay YouTube show.
The characters of boyfriend-obsessed Caroline (Amelia Fei), funny Tommy (Conor Tague) and “Lord of the Rings” fan Jessica (Ashley Wool) are not as well-developed, but they’re likable all the same. A few parents show up, too, and make no impression.
That’s also true of the score, with music by Jacob Yandura and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik. The songs are generically bittersweet, frustratingly similar and make the show feel motionless. Genre-wise, the sound sits apathetically in the middle of aughts pop and lesser Jeanine Tesori or Jason Robert Brown — in short, completely unmemorable.
The actors make the best of what they’re given, though. Pearce, in particular, has a nice, bright, musical theater voice.
He also boasts the show’s funniest moment (and one of the few laughs in it). When Drew sends Dr. Amigo a furious email criticizing him for overstepping, Amigo says that he actually interpreted the note in a more positive tone.
So, Pearce walks back out onstage and hilariously re-reads the message with a strained smile. That bit cleverly expresses how challenging social cues can be, even for the guy who’s supposed to be teaching them.
It’s a fleeting, enlivening scene of creative ingenuity that offers a glimpse of what “How To Dance In Ohio” might have been.