Latoya Edwards and Chris Renalds in ‘Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical.’ (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)
By April Stamm
It’s the discussion after the show that’s a killer. After I sit with my six-year-old, watching a vivacious musical with characters clad in colorful body paint and costumes singing catchy tunes and leaping about the stage with gusto, how do I explain that this is more than a show about acceptance and kindness?
It seems completely outrageous to her that there would be a town filled with only people of the same color skin who are afraid and hateful towards any new person of a different skin color daring to enter. She can’t be duped, it’s completely unbelievable that they would forbid people of different skin colors to be friends and drink out of separate water fountains. My daughter is young. My daughter is a native New Yorker with friends and family members of countless races, creeds, sexual orientations, religions, and more. My daughter is very lucky. So, how do I break the news to her that blind hate exactly like this existed and still exists in our world?
A colorful allegory set to rousing tunes, Atlantic Theatre Company’s Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, gives kids a look at not just bullying and inclusion, but more specifically segregation. Lily Polkadot (Latoya Edwards) moves to Rockaway to start third grade in a school (and presumably town) that is up until now “Square’s Only.” Lily’s teacher, Ms. Square (Stephanie Toups), is excited about the new pupil as is one of the students Sky Square (Chris Renalds), but his sister Penelope Square (Brooke Sweeney), seemingly speaking for the bulk of the town is more than skeptical.
Penelope hides her fear of the unknown in anger, hatred and chiding. Even teacher Ms. Square, seemingly more accepting, is reticent to buck rules and let Lily drink from the “Square’s Only” water fountain. It takes Lily and Sky’s burgeoning and forbidden friendship and a good old-fashioned talent show/square dance to push aside the hate and make Penelope and the rest see the reality of the peoples’ commonality.
The subject matter is heavy but important, and while most of the score (music by Greg Borowsky and Douglas Lyons, lyrics by Douglas Lyons) is clever and catchy, perfect for the grade school set, some songs fall hard on the kids. “Square Motto” is thematically appropriate, but is harsh in its tone as a racist anthem and its message loses steam with the smaller ones in the audience. However, “The Squadot” and its participatory dance get the audience on their feet and feeling like part of the show and the community, which is exactly the point. The choreography by Shea Sullivan is high energy and has children and parents alike bopping in and out of their seats.
The company of four throw themselves into their roles with a vigor (read slight overacting). Vocally they hold their own, with a couple intonation missteps along the way. Stephanie Toups stands out as she takes on both the teacher of the third grade and Sky and Penelope Square’s mom. She does so with a grace that sets her apart from the “kids” in the show and handles the challenge of playing two characters who because of the makeup/costuming (full blue with orange square body paint, hair, etc. for all of the Squares) look almost identical and gives differentiation.
Raising kids in a world in which hate exists is hard, to say the least. However, companies like the Atlantic for Kids at the Atlantic Theater Company give parents a jumping off place for these incredibly hard discussions. In the end, none of us should lose sight of the impact of discrimination, including our children. Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is fun, vibrant and energetic, but it is also important as a part of this discussion.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Atlantic for Kids
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 W 20th Street, NYC
Through October 8, 2017
April Stamm is a theatre, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Broadway Blog and EDGE Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center.