Broadway became a bit more diverse when How to Dance in Ohio officially opened at the Belasco Theatre December 10. The new coming-of-age musical follows the challenges faced by a group of autistic young adults at an Ohio counseling center, and stars seven publicly autistic young adult actors, a first for Broadway.
The responsibility of that representation was on the minds of everyone at the opening night festivities, with star Liam Pearce stating that "Talking to young autistic people that have come and seen the shows has been more rewarding than anything else in this process. People as young as eight year old will come up to me and be like, 'I'm autistic, and I've never seen myself represented on stage until tonight.' I knew I was autistic when I was five, and I didn't dream of saying that to a stranger. I never came out with that information until I was 20. To see young people who are so excited to share this part of themselves is insane and crazy and beautiful."
While the show is a cornucopia of complex autistic representation, it doesn't stop progressing within those confines. For Imani Russell, getting to breathe life into a non-binary individual on stage has been similarly cathartic. "I've cried a few times at the stage door from people coming up to say [that] this means the world. Even very specifically, they'll tell me 'I connected with this scene from your character, and it made me feel so seen and understood.' I've never seen a non-binary autistic person, as a non-binary autistic person, on stage ever. It all just reaffirms to me that what we're doing is so special and so important."
While much has been made of the musical's strides in autistic support on stage, Cristina Sastre has found the efforts to be just as impactful as a neurotypical individual. "Meeting everyone's accessibility needs is helpful for everyone. Literally everyone benefits from it. There's no downside to being more flexible and understanding with what people need to do the best work, because at the end of the day, everyone here has been able to put their best foot forward because of that. It's been amazing."
That journey of the musical from page to stage has been awe-inspiring for Alexandria Shiva, the director of the documentary on which How to Dance in Ohio is based. "I feel moved beyond words. It's so unbelievable, and it gives me chills to think about where we started and where it has gone. I never envisioned anything like this...it's so exciting to see how the representation is light years from what was even possible when I made the documentary. It is profoundly moving."
Like the documentary, the musical is heartwarming and joyful. In it, the seven young autistic adults are practicing their social skills in preparation for a spring formal dance—including working up the courage to ask someone to go with them. No one on the red carpet was shy about announcing who they would ask to a Broadway spring formal, though. Watch the video below. (Bernadette Peters, your dance card is full!)
Director Sammi Cannold credits the producing team of P3 Productions with the show's flourishing efforts toward accessibility. "We as artists can go into the room with the intention to make change, or address something all we want. But if that's not supported, then that's not possible. And we've been so fortunate that our producers, at every turn, have said, 'How can we make this more accessible? How can we do this initiative to ensure that more people can come see the show?' We feel like our dreams and our desires are met by the resources made available by them, which is incredible."
The company have developed the production together over many years, creating a tight knit family atmosphere. The "parents" group is filled with Broadway veterans supporting the actors making their Broadway debuts. "We're all a family, and we all are going through this together," says Amelia Fei. "So even when there are some scary moments, we all trust and love each other and have each other's back."
"I'm happier for them than I am for myself!" Darlesia Cearcy, who plays Fei's mother in the show, exclaims joyously. "To watch them go through every step of the process that I've been able to see on a countless number of occasions, and seeing their joy and their surprise and sometimes their angst and their command of the self shift is so special. They are beautiful people, and I love to see them enjoy every aspect of this experience."
See the cast of the musical pose on the red carpet with their real-life documentary counterparts in the gallery below.
At the opening night celebration, the seven actors playing members of Amigo Family Counseling walked the red carpet with their real life documentary counterparts; there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Said Rebekah Greer Melocik, the musical's lyricist and bookwriter, "so many of them have trusted us with their story, and it feels like such a gift to be a part of it." Jacob Yandura, the musical's composer, agreed. "The key with this whole show has been this community and the family that we have built: not just the actors, but also within the creative team, the designers, the ushers, everyone at the theatre, everyone in the documentary, and more. We are all such a strong and resonant community."
Before the celebration curled into the early morning and the company took to the dance floor, Caesar Samayoa perhaps put the emotions of the evening best. "I can't imagine going back to what I had been used to doing. I can't imagine going back to rehearsal rooms where accessibility and inclusion is not at the forefront. This producing team is changing the way things are done, and it's the only way forward."
Click through the gallery below for photos of the company on the red carpet, along with celebrity guests including Temple Grandin, Paula Abdul, Natasha Bedingfield, Alex Brightman, Douglas Lyons, Adrienne Warren, and more.
How to Dance in Ohio previously enjoyed a world premiere at Syracuse Stage in 2022. Much of that production's cast, which includes autistic actors in the seven principal roles, are reprising their performances for the Broadway run, including Desmond Edwards as Remy, Amelia Fei as Caroline, Madison Kopec as Marideth, Liam Pearce as Drew, Imani Russell as Mel, Conor Tague as Tommy, and Ashley Wool as Jessica. All seven make their Broadway debuts with the musical.
The cast also includes Caesar Samayoa (Come From Away) as Dr. Emilio Amigo, Cristina Sastre as Ashley Amigo, Haven Burton (Shrek) as Terry, Darlesia Cearcy (Shuffle Along...) as Johanna, Carlos L Encinias (Les Misérables), Nick Gaswirth (The Great Comet), Melina Kalomas, Martín Solá, Jean Christian Barry (Stranger Sings), Collin Hancock, Hunter Hollingsworth, Marina Jansen, Ayanna Thomas, and Marina Pires.
The creative team from the world premiere run is continuing with the show to the Main Stem, including choreographer Mayte Natalio, music director Lily Ling, scenic designer Robert Brill, costume designer Sarafina Bush, lighting designer Bradley King, and sound designer Connor Wang. Orchestrations are by Bruce Coughlin, and Scott Rowen serves as production stage manager. Casting is by Benton Whitley and Micah Johnson-Levy of Whitley Theatrical. ShowTown Theatricals serves as general manager, and Mary-Mitchell Campbell is a music consultant.