When describing the experience of playing Vera Kitchen in Northern Sky Theater’s original musical, We Like It Where?, Lachrisa Grandberry said, “There’s some magical thing about Vera Kitchen.”
Although the story of the real-life Vera Kitchen seems to possess magic enough to inspire a musical, she isn’t the only aspect of the show that sparkles. Brought to life at the intersection of a just-weird-enough true story, a talented cast of actors and larger-than-life musical numbers, We Like It Where? manages to dramatize real events and discuss serious social themes while still maintaining an atmosphere of rollicking humor.
As an intern at Northern Sky Theater, Corrie Kovacs came across an article at the Sister Bay library telling the story of Winneconne, a small Wisconsin town whose residents declared its secession from the state after discovering that Winneconne had been left off the 1967 state-highway map.
Although the seed was planted for a future musical, Kovacs didn’t pursue the story until “many, many moves and a lifetime later,” when she realized that she had finally found the perfect writing partner in her husband, Steve Kovacs. After two years of writing, researching and interviewing, the Kovacses are now sharing their show in beautiful Peninsula State Park during Northern Sky Theater’s 2019 summer season.
In different hands, the story of a small town staging a publicity stunt could have come off as a dry recitation, but high-energy performances involving Elvis-like gyrations, go-go boots and oddball characters keep the audience – young and old – thoroughly entertained.
Although the characters are dramatized and, in some cases, conglomerations of multiple people, the Kovacses took care to pay accurate homage to the real people involved in the Winneconne secession. The show is full of historical tidbits pulled straight from interviews with the town’s residents.
The Kovacses were particularly inspired by Vera Kitchen, a woman who occupied many roles throughout her life, gave out her real-estate card even in her hospital bed and constantly said, “What’s next? I’m ready.” In fact, she said that so often that it’s inscribed on her gravestone. The musical number “What’s Next, I’m Ready,” is inspired by the real-life Vera Kitchen.
The show focuses on Kitchen as the motivated and multi-talented owner of a diner and the driving force of the action. With strength and the occasional touch of exasperation, Kitchen leads her town in protest, ultimately gathering her community together in a way that’s much larger than a snub on the state-highway map.
“There’s this fierce woman who does not take no for an answer,” said Grandberry. “It’s rewarding to play those characters because I don’t think you often see women like her on the front stage.”
The audience follows strong female characters such as Vera as they grapple with the issues of the day. In the midst of musical numbers and humorous situations, We Like It Where? contends with social issues of the 1960s and highlights the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.
The women of the show struggle with societal restrictions and the casual, everyday sexism of the people closest to them. Dottie Knowles (played by Corrie Kovacs), wife of the sleazy Governor Knowles (played by Doug Mancheski), finds herself longing to build a life beyond the role of doting wife. Vera finds herself having to prove, even to her longtime friends, that she’s capable of being an effective leader. The emphasis on women’s liberation proves to be disturbingly relevant at times, especially when Governor Knowles dismisses his wife outright, uses her as a prop or wonders aloud why women are even upset with their situation at all.
Describing a musical number – and serious girl-power moment – in which Dottie sings with a backup chorus of go-go girls, Grandberry said, “I love the comedy within the drama of it. It reminds us that even in the most dramatic situations, there are reasons to laugh … It’s funny, but it’s a serious moment of staying true to yourself and accepting all your independence, all your womanhood, all your crazy colors.”
In addition to emphasizing the triumph of individuality in characters such as Dottie and Vera, “We wanted to drive home the camaraderie and the collaboration that’s possible when you work together,” Kovacs said. At its heart, We Like It Where? is a story of a community coming together to support a common cause – a story that’s especially recognizable in a place such as Door County.