‘How to Dance in Ohio’ Broadway Review: Or, How a Therapist Trips Over His Own Patients

Autism comes to the big boards in a muddled new musical

Liam Pearce and cast of "How to Dance in Ohio" (Credit: Curtis Brown)
Liam Pearce and cast of "How to Dance in Ohio" (Credit: Curtis Brown)

Giving a bad review to a show about autistic young people is a little like panning your niece’s piano recital at her birthday party. Since I don’t have any nieces, or nephews, here goes:

What I learned about autistic young people from seeing the new Broadway musical “How to Dance in Ohio” is that they are pretty much like other teenagers. In the show, which opened Sunday at the Belasco Theatre, one neurodiverse character refuses to eat her hamburger because it’s got pickles. One boy gets flustered asking a potential date to the upcoming big dance. Another teenager, whose mother must be Carrie Bradshaw, can’t decide which outfit to wear from their voluminous closet. A couple of girls, like most promgoers, have terrible taste in formal wear. (Sarafina Bush designed the show’s really garish costumes.) And another girl doesn’t like to be touched. I most identified with her because, post-pandemic, I have refused to shake hands, and when I hand people a bottle of Purell instead, they look at me odd.

“How to Dance in Ohio” is based on Alexandra Shiva’s 2015 documentary of the same title, which has the advantage of following only three patients or “clients” of Dr. Emilio Amigo, who used various therapy techniques to prepare the autistic teens for their first spring formal dance. Rebekah Greer Melocik’s book for the musical version expands the number to seven autistic teens, and even less promising, those characters now sing peppy jingles written by Jacob Yandura and Melocik. “How to Dance” is promoted to be sensory friendly with regard to lighting and amplification, but looks and sounds as flashy and loud as any other musical on Broadway. Then again, I’m supersensitive to such stuff.

The real Dr. Amigo should not take it as a compliment how he’s depicted in this new musical. As envisioned by Melocik, the Dr. Amigo (Caesar Samayoa) who sings and dances on the Belasco stage gets a little too involved with his clients’ lives and actually interferes with the college admission process when one of those students (the captivating Liam Pearce, more about him later) is accepted at the University of Michigan. Being a disloyal Ohioan, Dr. Amigo wants him to go to the U of M, even though the teen really wants to go to the University of Ohio instead. The doctor’s decision to butt-in is not really explained, except for the fact that the first 15 minutes of this musical feature a lot of lame jokes about how depressing life is in Ohio. Apparently, Sen. J.D. Vance’s home state has replaced New Jersey as the a–hole of the world on Broadway: Danny DeVito is forever trashing the Buckeye State in Theresa Rebeck’s new play “I Need That.”

Dr. Amigo’s real daughter might also be considering legal action. On stage, this young woman (Cristina Sastre) is not only a Juilliard drop out, she is a foot-stomping nepo baby who moves home and demands Dad give her a full-time job at the family counseling center. Being an intermittently responsible therapist, Dr. Amigo has only one choice. He fires his own kid. Clearly, since autism isn’t really very dramatic – at least, as depicted here – the makers of “How to Dance” have felt the need to create drama elsewhere.

Much of the show’s conflict derives from Dr. Amigo being an intrusive, incompetent therapist. Under the haphazard direction of Sammi Cannold, Samayoa’s Dr. Amigo bares an uncanny resemblance to John Astin’s social worker Glad Hand in the 1961 movie version of “West Side Story.” In charge of the “Dance at the Gym,” Astin manages to be absurdly unctuous for about five minutes of screen time. Samayoa defines the word “unctuous” for two and a half hours on stage as his character almost singlehandedly up-ends the spring dance, a big smile pasted on his face.

I call Cannold’s direction haphazard because one of this show’s guilty pleasures is watching the five actors who play the teenagers’ parents attempt to outshine each other as they collectively overact and/or hold the occasional high note way too long. As anyone who has seen “Jagged Little Pill” and other musicals about teenagers knows, the role of the parent is a thankless one. The jockeying for the spotlight among this gaggle of five mature actors is a comic study in how to derail a show that’s already going in all the wrong directions.  

Beyond trashing Ohio and giving parents a bad name, “How to Dance” perpetuates a favorite theater stereotype regarding journalists. Once again, the liberal cultural bastion that is Broadway joins with the political MAGA right to cast the Fourth Estate as the enemy of the people. In the musical “MJ,” Michael Jackson’s alleged pedophilia is attributed to the fantasies of a reporter. In “How to Dance,” a reporter (Carlos L. Encinas) writes a blog about Dr. Amigo’s counseling center, using the verb “suffer” to describe the lives of his clients. Here, the good doctor has only himself to blame, since he holds what is essentially a press junket to publicize the upcoming big dance. The other reporter (Melina Kalomas), who has no problem sharing quotes with Encinas’s irresponsible reporter, manages to show a modicum of discretion when she’s egregiously hit on by Dr. Amigo, who, in real life, is gay. A recent article on “How to Dance” in the New York Times assures us that the switch in sexual orientation “was a matter of timing, not erasure.” By “timing,” do they mean placing the show in a pre-Stonewall mindset rather than the present?

Far more successful in dealing with the opposite sex is the autistic young character named Drew, as played by the aforementioned Pearce. He is the student who decides to go to college in Ohio rather than jump the state line to follow Dr. Amigo’s misguided plans for him. In his Broadway debut, Pearce rises above all the narrative chaos and otherwise lackluster material to channel a young Jude Law who can sing. A star is born under the least likely of circumstances.


One response to “‘How to Dance in Ohio’ Broadway Review: Or, How a Therapist Trips Over His Own Patients”

  1. Kyle Avatar

    Honestly this whole review is pretty able-ist… which happens to be exactly what this show is fighting against. Real nice to compare autistic young adults to children in the first line. Maybe you could have learned something from your “favorite theatre stereotype regarding journalists.”

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