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Meet Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical By Peter Filichia

If your taste in show music runs to Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as Stephen Sondheim, you’ll find that Polkadots is a good cast album for your young children, nieces and nephews.

If your taste in show music runs to Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as Stephen Sondheim, you’ll find that Polkadots is a good cast album for your young children, nieces and nephews.

That’s especially true if those kids you love aren’t winning any popularity contests at school. Here’s the antidote, for when Polkadots was produced in Connecticut, it was given The Bully Free Communities Spotlight Award. So this is a children’s musical that just doesn’t settle for entertainment; it wants to help, too.

But don’t expect that anyone will dance a polka in Polkadots. The music is rock and the rhymes are of the so-near-yet-so-far variety. But co-composers Greg Borowsky and Douglas Lyons weren’t writing for an audience that loves watching the aging Weismann “Girls” walking down the staircase.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of surprises in their songs and in Melvin Tunstall III’s book. Penelope is excited at the prospect of returning to school after the summer. Now what kid feels this way?

Ah, but Penelope, who’s drop-dead beautiful, sees school not necessarily as a temple of learning, but as a building full of kids who can swoon over her – boys who want her, girls who want to be her. Yes, school is a vast improvement over a mere neighborhood where only a small cluster of kids is around to adore her.

“I didn’t ask to be gorgeous,” she says matter-of-factly. “It just sorta happened.”

Her brother Sky is more in line with the youth of America who hates to see the summer end. But when it comes to hating, we’ll see that Penelope is the champ of the two.

That happens soon after we’re introduced to Lily Polkadot, who’s moved to this new town of Rockaway, which is a quite prejudiced one. Don’t take offense, you Rockaways in Queens or New Jersey; Tunstall doesn’t mean either of you. After all, you’re not a community of Squares, are you?

Manhattanites, Chicagoans and Los Angelinos may snigger at the idea and firmly believe that the suburbs are indeed full of Squares, but that’s one fascinating aspect of Polkadots: the term “Squares” represents the in-crowd in Rockaway. The creators were wise to take a term that for more than seventy years has meant “dull, rigidly conventional, and out of touch with current trends” and turn it into a word that means ultra-suave and cool.

So how is Penelope Square going to take to Lily, whose skin is unlike every Square, for it sports polkadots everywhere? Alas, Penelope is one of those kids who has a knee-jerk reaction that “different” kids are automatically inferior and might even be dangerous. (The irony? She says in song that she wears a dress that has a pattern of jelly beans on it. Is that so far from polkadots?)

And who taught her everything she knows? We’ll discover that Penelope got these prejudices from her mother.

Penelope gives it too-straight to Lily: “Coming here was your mistake.” The rejected kid puts on a brave front by singing the well-worn cliché that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can’t hurt me.” Only five lines of song pass before she’s singing a different tune: “Words can pinch you and rip you up, knock you down and kick you in the butt,” she finally admits. But Lily does firmly come to a healthier conclusion when she says “You control your own happiness.”

Well, yes and no. You have no power to make someone like you, no matter how much you try. Friendship must come from the other person. So Lily will find that singing “One Pal” won’t automatically get her one. But she dreams of a friend with whom “we’d trade off our lunches, our secrets, our hunches … we’d build sandcastles up to the sky.”

Once she’s alone, Lily sings “I wish that my toothbrush could scrub away every single dot. They’d all disappear and my skin would be clear.” I have to wonder: are the polkadots a metaphor for acne? Whatever the case, as you may have inferred, Lily will be as welcome at Rockaway Elementary as Elphaba was at Shiz University.

But first, on hand to soothe Lily’s wounds is a sympathetic teacher – the kind we’d love to have had (or, if we’re lucky, we did have). Ms. Square says she knows how Lily feels, for when she arrived at Rockaway Elementary, she was the only female teacher on the staff. (Hmmmm, I know that for decades there’s been a concerted effort to hire more male teachers in elementary schools so that they can serve as role models to boys. But I never thought the hiring bias went this far.)

What’s admirable of the writers is that they have Ms. Square flatly admit “Life is unfair.” It’s not every children’s musical that comes down to brass tacks so unapologetically. There will be adults who feel that keeping this information from kids makes for a happier childhood, but one could effectively argue that learning this difficult lesson sooner rather than later will prevent future disappointments from being so devastating.

But Ms. Square’s bottom line is inspirational: “Think of the first astronaut,” she sings. “You can open the door for all the rest.”

Another surprise is that Sky Square somehow was exempt from his mother’s rigid belief on one-size-fits-all standardization. Sky, intrigued by the new student, reminds us that some people in this world don’t make snap judgments when they see someone who’s different; instead, they’re captivated by a person who has another distinctive look. That motivates Sky to sing that Lily’s “Beautiful.” As he sings, “She sticks out like a thumb in the bestest of ways.”

Perhaps Lily’s luck will change at the school dance where all the Squares engage in – can’t you guess? — square-dancing. Here she employs the Secret Weapon that’s helped other musical theater characters for more than a hundred years: she’ll introduce a new dance. No, “The Squadot” doesn’t tell you to go down on your knees, up on your toes, but it does, in the grand tradition of “The Varsity Drag,” have lyrics (via Douglas Lyons) that serve as built-in instructions.

And a happy ending, of course. The won-over Squares sing that “You make a mistake when you’re brought up to hate” and that “You’re a cool kid even if you’re gay or straight or a bit overweight.” Ms. Square chimes in too with “They aren’t born cruel. Love is their first language,” a sentiment that’s second-cousin to what Oscar Hammerstein II had written in South Pacific nearly seventy years earlier.

So Tunstall and his collaborators don’t give Polkadots a standard-issue “Here we go again” ending when Troy Triangle comes on the scene as the new kid at Rockaway Elementary. Although a Triangle among Squares would seem to be as bad a fit as, uh, a square peg in a round hole, Troy has a much easier time of it because Lily has paved the way for tolerance. Don’t you love that Triangle is welcomed on all sides?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.