“If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person,” comments one of seven autistic actors in a no-fourth-wall opening. Unlike the Peabody award winning documentary from which this show derived, characters we meet are, despite noted issues, so well grounded they seem to be coping with the same problems as any teenager.
Cristina Sastre, Conor Tague, Desmond Luis Edwards, Amelia Fei, Caesar Samayoa, Madison Kopec, Imani Russell, Liam Pearce
On the one hand, this is a groundbreaking musical; sentimental and uplifting, suitable for the entire family. On the other, it does little justice to the truth of autism or its inherent struggles. Attributing problems to those who appear to have none out of the ordinary and adding an instance of meltdown would’ve offered balance, making the positive ending a win, not a given.
Autistic young adults from working class families regularly meet at Dr. Amigo’s (Caesar Samayoa) Family Practice in order to learn social skills that might help navigate a world where they feel like outsiders. Drew (Liam Pearce) is an extremely shy engineering genius fearful of leaving home for college. Marideth (Madison Kopec), obsessed with facts, has so few social skills, she panics when asked to interact, often running away. Mel (Imani Russell), who otherwise capably works at Paws and Claws Pet Store, is unable to answer a telephone.
Liam Pearce and the Company
Caroline (Amelia Fei), manifesting what might be proximity or safety obstacles, needs to sit at the front of the bus. To the script’s credit, no issue is treated with condescension. Remy (Desmond Luis Edwards) has a burgeoning YouTube program in which he dresses up as characters such as Tammy Faye or the sixth Spice Girl hoping to become an influencer. He, Jessica (Ashley Wool, who looks too old to be in this company) and Tommy (Conor Tague) – “I do the best impression of what my parents want out of me – don’t manifest particular challenges besides insecurity.
Dr. Amigo’s daughter Ashley (Cristina Sastre), a dancer home from Julliard for surgery, has decided she wants to work with her father instead of going back. (She does so now temporarily.) Exhibiting a blind spot, he tells her they’re not quitters. It’s possible that the tangent represents another young person seen without perspective, but to my mind, the character could easily be jettisoned. There are also a number of unreservedly understanding parents who, in real life, would be more acutely faced with their own tests and concerns, and two journalists.
Imani Russell, Ashley Wool, Conor Tague, Madison Kopec, Amelia Fei, Desmond Luis Edwards
Dr. Amigo comes up with the idea of a Spring Formal which will both create a sense of normalcy and offer a number of “opportunities” to overcome impeding behavior. (There’s a countdown in lights to help elicit pressure.) The group addresses interpersonal skills, small talk, how to ask for a date, how to deal with rejection, how to dance…Several are attracted to one another. One has an outside boyfriend. Moms take two of the girls to find dresses. Fear and anticipation ride tandem.
When the doctor’s press interview goes south (is misinterpreted) and is peremptorily printed, it alienates everyone. Only the teenagers can repair what’s gone amiss. Needless to say, they do.
Of the cast, Liam Pearce (Drew) and Caesar Samoya (Dr. Amigo) are standouts; a Broadway debut and an actor of whom we see too little. Both visibly think, are credibly sympathetic and have superb voices. Desmond Luis Edwards’ exuberance lights up Remy. Madison Kopec (Marideth) conveys compelling focus and physical inhibition. Nick Gaswirth is warmly believable as her single father.
Madison Kopec, Liam Pearce and the Company
Jacob Yandura’s score is amiable, pedestrian pop; Rebekah Greer Melock’s lyrics often fare better. Director Sammi Cannold keeps things moving with spirit. Brief confrontations/awkwardness is deftly handled. Mayte Natalio’s movement direction is lively and notably within everyone’s abilities.
I don’t understand Scenic Designer Robert Brill’s visual of scattered, lit up letters – at center they spell out the title. Small set-ups indicating change of locale work well. Costumes by Sarafina Bush are just quirky enough to depict the tastes of these teenagers.
Photos by Curtis Brown
How To Dance in Ohio
Book and Lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik
Music by Jacob Yandura
Directed by Sammi Cannold
Based on Alexandra Shiva’s documentary film
111 West 44th Street