After the completion of its acclaimed production of Newsies across town at Herberger Theater Center, Valley Youth Theatre has now moved back to its home base on North 1st Street in Phoenix with an Arizona premiere.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is a new comedy with a built-in theme that packs a thoroughly entertaining punch. Up until now, most productions of the show around the country were performed by adults – it’s the kind of musical you might expect to see staged at Childsplay – but for its Arizona debut, it’s VYT that has taken on the challenge of staging the story of 8-year-old Lily Polkadot and the prejudices she’s about to encounter at her new school in a new town.
Creator of Polkadots Douglas Lyons
Young Lily Polkadot (played on alternate performances by either MarySue Dickens or Kate Daley) has just moved to the small town of Rockaway, a ‘Squares Only’ residence. You can see the difference. It’s on everyone’s face. Those with the last name Square have squares on their skin. Those with the last name Polkadot have polka dots. And they don’t rub off.
It’s the first day of school, or as the chalkboard in Ms. Square’s classroom states, ‘A New Year, A New Start!’ For the squares in the class it probably feels just the same as any other year, but for Lily, it’s definitely a new start, particularly when she encounters the classroom bully, loud-mouthed Penelope Square (alternately Cecilia Bradley or Kiara Adams). “But she has polka dots!” exclaims the bratty child with the squares on her face. “Only Squares go to Rockaway!”
Douglas Lyons Taking a Selfie with Polkadots Cast Members
Worse, Lily finds that when she’s thirsty, she can’t drink out of the regular water fountain. That’s for Squares only. Even her kindly teacher, Ms. Square (alternately Ryley Grace Youngs or Mia Johnson) who is sympathetic to Lily’s difference insists that Lily never drinks from the Square’s water fountain. It’s just not done. The school will have to bring in a special fountain for Polkadots only. “Does the water taste different?” Lily ponders.
As you can tell, the themes of the show are clear, especially when Lily befriends Penelope’s brother Sky (alternately Alex Silver or Dominic Cardenas) and tells him that out there in a world beyond the limits of Rockaway there are not only Polkadots but also Triangles, and they’re perfectly nice people. “My dad said if Triangles come, the family would have to move away,” responds Sky.
Yet despite the obviousness of its message, the need for tolerance, and how being different makes us all the more wonderful, the show never feels as heavy-handed with its real-world, historical parallels upon which it draws as you’d think. With its light, playful, and humorous approach, being suspicious, scared, or even angry at something just because it’s different is presented as clearly a preposterous notion to take.
Director Bobb Cooper, Costume Designer Karol Cooper, and the Show’s Creator Douglas Lyons with Polkadots Cast Members
Themes and messages aside, what elevates Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical to something even more special is its pop/rock score. With lyrics by Douglas Lyons and music by Lyons and Greg Borowsky, the show is populated with short, bright, upbeat, and melodious songs, each with a catchy hook, underlining scenes with the most positive of attitudes.
Under director Bobb Cooper’s guidance, the end result is an all-around, accomplished charmer. While writer Melvin Tunstall III may have originally envisioned the musical as a showpiece for four adults doubling as both adult characters and children, the way VYT has adapted the work and added bodies, you’d swear it was always designed to be seen this way.
“Go back to where you came from!” shouts the bratty Penelope. But Lily, bright, engaging and always positive, recognizes that Penelope Square’s anger comes from a place of fear. When asked if she’s afraid of Penelope, Lily answers, “Why should I be afraid of someone who is scared?” Precisely.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical continues at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix until October 28