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“How to Dance in Ohio” review: The HBO doc- turned-musical is a mixed bag

“How to Dance in Ohio” review: The HBO doc- turned-musical is a mixed bag

The new Broadway show featuring autistic actors hits some high notes, but it also gets a bit lost in translation.

Broadway has been littered in recent years with stage adaptations of popular films, and it’s no wonder why. Not unlike Hollywood, the Great White Way has become obsessed with highly recognizable titles that will lure in disposable income from vacationing tourists. Which is what makes staging a musical adaption of a little-seen 2015 HBO documentary about a group of autistic young adults such an odd — and intriguing — choice.

Alexandra Shiva’s How to Dance in Ohio (which is streaming on Max) followed those young adults as they prepared for an upcoming spring formal dance in an effort to improve their social skills while also working towards establishing independence. Now that real-life story has been brought to the Belasco Theatre in New York, although as Madison Kopec (who plays Marideth) explains at the outset, “Parts have been embellished for dramatic purposes. You have to spice things up in Ohio.”

<p>Curtis Brown</p> 'How to Dance in Ohio'

Curtis Brown

'How to Dance in Ohio'

Once again, the upcoming spring formal dance — the brainchild of group counselor Dr. Amigo (Caesar Samayoa) — is the backdrop. And like the film, the stage version follows the would-be dancers as they navigate larger coming-of-age issues. Tommy (Conor Tague) wants to pass his driver’s test. Drew (Liam Pearce) must decide if he is going to move away from home to attend college. Caroline (Amelia Fei) has to converse with a stranger. And in the show’s most tense moment, Mel (Imani Russell) is confronted with unexpected tasks while working at a pet store.

The seven actors playing Dr. Amigo’s clients are all autistic — and they are fantastic. Ashley Wool brings Jessica’s love of dragons to fiery life, while Desmond Luis Edwards exudes pure joy as the cosplay-obsessed Remy — which makes it so heartbreaking when he is brought to tears halfway through Act 2 by a careless piece of journalism. “It’s not like I’m shocked by the ableist clichés, but they do make me tired / Do I only exist on this planet to make somebody else feel inspired / I’m no object of pity, and if that’s what you see / Then clearly you aren’t seeing me,” he sings to great impact in “Nothing at All.”

<p>Curtis Brown</p> 'How to Dance in Ohio'

Curtis Brown

'How to Dance in Ohio'

As Drew, Pearce is an absolute force. He nails the show’s funniest moment, which involves an email that could be read in two very different ways, and shines through two of its strongest numbers. You can feel the paralyzing struggle within his mathematically inclined brain as he tries to make a romantic connection, singing, “Social cues are too confusing / But numbers are clear / How to learn what the social cues mean is why I’m here” on “Waves and Wire.” He also soars on the rousing “Building Momentum,” which carries the musical to its crowd-pleasing conclusion.

<p>Curtis Brown</p> 'How to Dance in Ohio'

Curtis Brown

'How to Dance in Ohio'

Unfortunately, not all the songs in How to Dance in Ohio — with music by Jacob Yandura and book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik — reach such heights. Many numbers drift in and out without leaving much of a mark. And attempts to flesh the story out beyond the group of seven mostly fall flat. In a somewhat perplexing case of art imitating art, the main second act conflict centers around Dr. Amigo inadvertently stealing the spotlight from his clients, yet the show itself — directed by Sammi Cannold — makes the same mistake by spending too much time on the doctor’s relationship with his daughter (Cristina Sastre) amid a failed marriage, which culminates in a shockingly unnecessary scene of him embarrassingly hitting on an engaged reporter.

<p>Curtis Brown</p> 'How to Dance in Ohio'

Curtis Brown

'How to Dance in Ohio'

How to Dance in Ohio — which features sparse staging and hardly any costume changes until the big dance itself — often misses by trying to cover too much ground from too many different angles and perspectives. And the music as a whole is only okay. But the moments that do hit — when we see these young adults confronting trepidation and unfamiliarity, and just generally celebrating life — hit hard, and will resonate with both the neurotypical and neurodivergent alike. Just ask all the folks in my row reaching for tissues. B

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