Polka Dots: The Cool Kids Musical
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, RVA 23230
Performances: July 12 – August 11, 2019
Ticket Prices: $21
Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is based on the real-life events of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957 nine black students enrolled in the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School, a test of the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. For Polkadots, Melvin Tunstall, III (book) has set the story in Rockaway elementary school, in an undetermined state. Instead of black and white, the tension takes place between the blue skinned squares and the pink skinned polkadots. The squares believe they are the superior group, and don’t want to share their school or their town with polkadots.
Eight-year-old Lily Polkadot, played by Caroline Lynch, is the first polkadot to integrate the school, and the plot revolves around Lily’s efforts to make a friend and assimilate into her new school. Serious and sensitive issues are handled with care under the gentle direction of Jan Guarino.
Lily puts up a brave front, standing up to the mean spirited Penelope Square, singing “Sticks and Stones” as an affirmation, but she still privately wishes her skin was covered with squares instead of polkadots. The children’s teacher, Ms. Square, played by Sydnee Graves, who also plays the role of Mama Square, is warm, friendly and accepting of Lily, but at the same time she doesn’t want to make waves.
On the first day of school, Lily must remain alone in the classroom during the bathroom and water break because the polkadots’ water pump has not yet been installed, and Lily must not drink from the squares’ water sprinkler. A separate water fountain is eventually rolled out for Lily, and this marks one of many times I wondered just how much the younger members of the audience really understood the historical significance of what was taking place.
This was one of the few times I did not have my grandsons Kingston (10) and Emmitt (who just turned 5) along to consult with. As a matter of fact, the volunteer ticket taker took one look at me and asked, “Where’s your grandson?” I almost felt like some sort of pervert attending the Children’s Theatre without a child or two in tow, and I really would like to know what they would have taken away from this show.
Interesting, the cast, including Quan Chau as Sky Square, Sydnee Graves as Ms. Square/Mama Square, Caroline Lynch as Lily Polkadot, and Madeleine Witmer as Penelope Square is quite diverse (white, black, Asian), and all are making their debuts at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. The quartet was uniformly energetic, and all boast strong singing voices. Douglas Lyons’ lyrics are surprisingly sophisticated for a children’s show – more throaty ballads than bouncy ditties and the music by Greg Borowsky and Lyons provides a firm foundation for Mallory Keene’s choreography. There is even one number, where Sky and Lily create a silly dance, the Squa-Dot, that invites audience participation, but on Friday night, although there was one enthusiastic row of youthful audience members bouncing in their seats, no one was brave enough to stand up and join in the dance.
Graves was almost annoyingly prim and proper in her role as the teacher and seemed like an authentic school counselor when she shared with Lily her own trials as the first “lady teacher” at their school. Witmer was almost satisfyingly snarky as the mean girl big sister, and was visibly disappointed when her big song, “Cool Kid,” which was meant as a put-down for Lily missed the mark, because Lily wasn’t in the audience to hear it. Chau was adorable as little brother, Sky, and Lynch was perfectly cast as the spunky yet vulnerable Lily.
Kyle Artone’s costumes are colorful and cartoonish, and the square women’s full-skirted dresses, stretched over stiff and puffy crinolines, are especially pretty. Lily’s dress is simpler and less elaborate than the dresses of the squares. I found the pink and blue skin (part fabric and part makeup) and cotton candy colored hair a bit creepy, but it didn’t seem to bother the younger members of the audience.
Emily Hake Massie’s set was surprisingly simple. A huge square platform in the center of the stage served as Penelope’s bed, Ms. Square’s classroom, and Mama Square’s dining table. Cubes served as props and seating and doubled as steps to allow the performers access to sit and dance atop the square platform. Lynne Hartman’s lighting was also minimal, with a few special effects that highlighted the segregated fountains.
Unlike in real life, there is a happy ending, with everyone becoming friends – or at least, agreeing to live and work together – but as a lesson, it’s a start. Looking around at the faces of the children in the audience, mostly 6-10 years old, they appeared to be having a good time, but it would take a post-performance discussion to determine how much they actually learned.
Polkadots: The Cook Kids Musical runs just under an hour, with no intermission, and will be playing at The Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn through August e.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten