Theater: “How to Dance in Ohio” @ the Belasco
I’ve only been to Ohio a couple of times, and while it may not be the excitement capital of the world, I always had a great time. Indeed, some of my best cycling buddies and classmates hail from the Buckeye State.
And if every Ohio native I ever meet could be as talented and motivated as the students portrayed in “How to Dance in Ohio”, the new Broadway musical, maybe I’m due for a return visit.
This buoyant, feel-good play is based on the real-life Amigo Family Counseling Center, a Columbus mental health center established for autistic kids. Both at the Center and on Broadway, the founder, Emilio Amigo (Cesar Samayoa) leads these young adults in group exercises to help shape them into confident, accomplished citizens of the world.
These young people are as diverse a group as you’ve ever seen. They completely defy generalization. (The opening line on the show was, “if you’ve seen one autistic kid…you’ve seen one autistic kid.”)
Jessica (Ashley Wool), for instance, doesn’t like Caroline’s (unseen) boyfriend, whom she calls a jerk and whom she’s never met. Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards) occasionally gets hostile comments on his YouTube cosplay channel.
Drew (the charismatic Liam Pearce), a genius in electric circuitry, is accepted into a prestigious college engineering program but is worried deeply about the break in routine that it would require. Melanie (Imani Russell), who works at Paws and Claws is challenged when she is promoted from Head of Reptiles to a more people-facing position.
Doctor Amigo has a brainstorm. He proposes staging a “formal”—a prom where the students have to dress up in tuxedos and ball gowns and dance. Amigo gives them exercises in making small talk, asking fellow students for a date, etc.
Tensions arise, however, as the group face new challenges. Can they actually dance without tripping over their partner’s feet? What happens when they ask for a date and are rejected?
The cast is composed of actors who actually are on the spectrum. They dance and sing as well or even better than many of their peers in Broadway. Which is exactly the playwright’s point: autistic kids don’t need your pity, or your condescension. They just want the chance to shine. And this wonderful musical gives it to them in spades.
In his review, NYT’s Jesse Green suggested that by casting actors that skew towards the high-functioning range on the autism scale, it sugarcoats the challenges they are facing. To which an irate reader responded, “Is he saying the autistic kids aren’t autistic enough?” Geesh, Jesse.
A universal truth the play does promote is that all of us face uncomfortable situations in life m, and while avoidance or denial is the easy option, that’s not how we grow. Mr. Amigo, both the real one and the character on stage, are staunch believers in that philosophy.
If you leave the theater teary-eyed after seeing “How to Dance in Ohio,” you wouldn’t be the first. And you’ll find yourself smarter about matters you may not have thought a great deal about lately. Like visiting your friends from Ohio.
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