Review: “How to Dance in Ohio” brings joy and awareness to Syracuse Stage

Review: "How to Dance in Ohio" brings awareness to Syracuse

The musical highlights a unique perspective of the lives of seven young autistic adults as they navigate their way through human connection.
Published: September 26, 2022
The cast of
The cast of "How to Dance in Ohio" now performing through Oct. 9 at Syracuse Stage.

As the lights dim on the audience, the cast of How to Dance in Ohio steps onto the stage to give the house a sensory warning and a message, “They say, ‘If you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.’ Congrats, you’ve just met seven!”

Adapted from the Peabody Award-winning documentary of the same name, the show follows a group of seven young autistic adults as they navigate the highs and lows of life at a counseling center. How to Dance in Ohio celebrates the trials and tribulations of human connection we can all relate to using authentic autism representation in both the cast and the script.

Led by Dr. Emilio Amigo, played by Wilson Jermain Heredia of RENT, the group plans a spring formal as one of the members, Drew, played by Liam Pearce, decides if he wants to go to the University of Michigan.

The cast of
"How to Dance in Ohio" will run at the Syracuse Stage until Oct. 9.

The musical combines pop-like music with lyrics that convey the inner workings of the characters’ brains. The opening song “Today Is” describes each of the young adult’s morning routines and everyday challenges like asking for a seat on the bus or deciding what cereal to eat in the morning and is even stopped at one point because one of the characters is overstimulated. These songs truly allow the audience to step into the shoes of an autistic person.

As the group prepares for the dance, Drew develops a crush on another member, Marideth, played by Madison Kopec, but struggles to convey his feelings to her. Amigo and his daughter, Ashley, portrayed by Marina Pires, help the group work through all the first dance jitters from asking someone to the dance, what to wear and, of course, dancing.

The group of seven adults each get their own moment to shine on stage. Jessica (Ashley Wool) is obsessed with dragon-themed romance books and finding a date to the dance. Her best friend Caroline (Amelia Fei) is confused about her relationship with her boyfriend who seems a little too jealous. Tommy (Conor Tague) is working towards getting his driver’s license so he can drive his date to the dance, and Mel (Imani Russell) struggles with their coworkers as they compete for a promotion.

Each actor reveals another layer of their character through strong body language. From visibly cringing to nervously biting nails, we learn how each character feels without requiring them to describe it verbally — which may be hard for autistic individuals.

Remy, played by newcomer Desmond Edwards, steals the stage with witty lines, jokes and fashion. As an avid cosplayer and aspiring influencer, Remy gets caught between what to wear for the formal since each of his cosplay designs, all illustrated by Edwards himself, help him represent a different aspect of his personality. While we don’t get to explore Remy’s character further, Edwards’ joyful presence lights a smile on your face each time he sings.

Madison Kopec and Liam Pearce share a dance in
Characters Marideth and Drew at the school dance in "How to Dance in Ohio."

As the day of the dance arrives, Amigo and Ashley struggle at home. Amigo wants his daughter to go back to college to dance after she heals from her injury, but Ashley has found a new purpose in helping him at the counseling center. The conflict blows up right before the spring formal, but never feels truly resolved. Instead, the pair shelf their problems for later to dance with their clients.

By the end of the show, the audience is clapping and dancing along with the characters on stage. There are various plot lines left unanswered, such as Drew’s U of M decision or Mel’s relationship with her co-workers, and others that feel simplified and rushed like Caroline breaking up with her boyfriend. But, the personality of each character is so powerful that the final song feels like a celebration of progress.

How to Dance in Ohio is a joyful and uplifting new musical, showing us just how similar we all are in our pursuit of human connection.

How to Dance in Ohio is playing at Syracuse Stage until Oct. 9 and tickets are available online.