Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘We Like It Where? taps Wisconsin’s rich humor in Fish Creek

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Tap ta-tap ta tap tap tap, tapity-tap-tap tap. Ding!

C.O. Rogers’ fingers bustle all over the keys of his typewriter. He has a great kernel of an idea for his next column for the Winneconne News:

He writes, Guess what? Would you believe that the village of Winneconne is no more? The state map makers must have been napping when they should have been mapping they completely eliminated the village from the new Wisconsin road maps. 

This is 1967.

What happens next is the fuel for the musical “We Like It Where?” that premiered to a standing ovation Saturday night in Northern Sky Theater’s summer home in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater.

It’s a fascinating story, though, like some novels, it takes a while to get into it. Once in, the show by Corrie Beula Kovacs and Stephen Kovacs percolates with tasty tidbits not only about Winneconne fighting back with humor but about society of the time.

All the characters are based on real people with plenty of musical theater artistic license, mind you.

And what happens happened: Winneconne served notice that it was seceding from the state, sticking its tongue out at Gov. Warren P. Knowles, who in the show sticks his tongue out back at Winneconne’s instigators because of his embarrassment.

The flub on the 1967 state map 1.1 million copies printed became merriment in the international media. It was comic relief amid the news from the Vietnam War and its agonized backlash back home.

“We Like It Where?” is history in song and dance and humor.

The set backdrop tells where action takes place: Foreign Service locations, including Hawaii; the Arrowhead restaurant in Winneconne; the governor’s office and home in Madison and an apartment in Washington, D.C. The show is a Wisconsin story that isn’t stuck in Wisconsin.

Woven into the fabric are touches of the time. References include James Bond 007, the push for mandatory seatbelts, mercury poisoning in fish and burning bras.

That last reference is part of a burning sub-theme about the changing role of women. Some of the lines: “It isn’t a wife’s place to question her husband’s decisions,” “women’s work,” “It’s politics, you (a woman) wouldn’t understand.”

One of the songs, “What a Woman,” turns a viewpoint from beginning to end. A woman on a mission sings one thing and other pooh-poohs with, “I’m not sure this is something a woman should do.” By the end of the song, the pooh-poohing is done.

The material gives the performers fodder on which to build interesting characters.

Doug Mancheski sends up ego-driven, politics-craving, image-mongering Warren Knowles, whose roasting is akin to a spanferkel.

Alex Campea re-creates the glee of a newspaper guy, C.O. Rogers, with a hot story that he is fanning the flames of.

Lachrisa Grandberry climbs into the role of a person with a purpose, restaurant owner Vera Kitchen, who drives the town folk to action. One of Grandberry’s catchy bits starts with “My mother says…” and off she races with a breathlessburstofrattlingofmotherlywisdomstackedtogether.

Bill Theisen is amiable, nostalgic James Coughlin, who manages to be village president as a Democrat swimming upstream in a river of Republicans.

Jeff Herbst (in a shared role with Fred Heide) is the boss of a manufacturing company who has comic capers with things electrical.

Jamie Mercado is the can-do Kay Klipstine, a woman on the go in Washington who drops this line about her hometown: “Would you rather be stuck in a dead-end town like Winneconne?”

Emily Brandt is love-minded Jan Badtke, also in Washington (to whom the above line is directed) and, with Kay, the inspiration for Winneconne seceding by way of an international contest.

Isiah Spetz doubles with zest as Knowles’ put-upon flak, Paul Hassett, and Jan Badtke’s long-distance fiancé, Russ Meerdink.

Corrie Beula Kovacs crackles as the catalytic Dotty Knowles, the governor’s wife who pushes back. Corrie Beula Kovacs not only is the co-author, on stage she is a clothes horse with eye-catching outfits and in character is the epitome of change on the hoof.

Present in the opening-night audience were Russ Meerdink and Jan Badtke Meerdink, the engaged couple from the story. That helped lend a bit of authenticity to the characters on stage.

This is an all-original show with a live band. It has an amusing story, yet with plenty of messages fused in. The players are mostly jaunting as they romp around reality.

My favorite part is the sounds of the typewriter, from days when I heard a whole newsroom full of them, starting in 1967. Tapity-tap-tap. Ding!

***

Creative: Book Corrie Beula Kovacs, Stephen Kovacs; music and lyrics Stephen Kovacs; director Molly Rhode; music arrangements Dennis Johnson; music director Alissa Rhode; stage manager Neen Rock; scenic designer Lisa Schlenker; scenic artist Carri Dahl; lighting designer Bryce Foster; sound designer Ben Werner; costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore; props designer Kathleen Rock; artistic director Jeff Herbst; managing director Dave Maier

Cast:

+ C.O. Rogers (columnist and publisher of Winneconne News) Alex Campea
+ Warren P. Knowles (Wisconsin governor) Doug Mancheski

+ Vera Kitchen (Arrowhead Restaurant owner and Winneconne Chamber of Commerce president) Lachrisa Grandberry

+ James Coughlin (Winneconne vVillage president) Bill Theisen
+ William Schlapman (Case Manufacturing Co. president) Fred “Doc” Heide/Jeff Herbst

+ Dotty Knowles (governor’s wife) Corrie Beula Kovacs
+ Paul Hassett (Chief of staff to the governor) Isaiah Spetz

+ Jan Badtke (Former Winneconne resident living in Washington, D.C.) Emily Brandt
+ Kay Klipstine (Jan’s roommate and best friend) Jamie Mercado
+ Russell Meerdink (Jan’s fiancé and former Winneconne resident) Isaiah Spetz

Musicians: Conductor/keyboard Alissa Rhode; bass Dennis Johnson; guitar John Lewis; percussion Colin O’Day; various instruments Corrie Beula Kovacs, Jamie Mercado, Alex Campea, Isaiah Spetz

Running time: 95 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: Through Aug. 24: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday (except July 4), Saturday in rotation with “Windjammers” and “Dairy Heirs.”

Info: northernskytheater.com

***

Musical numbers

“We Like It Here” Knowles, Vera, Coughlin, Schlapman, Rogers

“We Like It Where?” Schlapman, Rogers, Vera, Coughlin, Knowles, Dotty

“Off the Map” Jan and Kay

“A More Perfect Union” Knowles, Dotty and Paul

“What’s Next, I’m Ready” Vera, Coughlin, Rogers, Schlapman

“What a Woman” Dotty and Vera

“Secession” Kay, Jan, Vera, Coughlin, Rogers, Schlapman

“A Man’s World” Knowles, Coughlin, Rogers, Schlapman, Paul

“Headlines” Company

“Declaring Independence” Dotty, Vera, Jan, Kay

“One Thousand Two Hundred Seventy-Three People” Coughlin, Rogers, Schlapman, Dotty, Jan, Kay, Vera

“Secession Day/Winneconne National Anthem” Vera, Schlapman, Coughlin, Rogers, Jan, Kay, Dotty

Epilogue Company

***

THE VENUE: Northern Sky Theater (the former American Folklore Theatre) performs in a scenic, 800-seat amphitheater in Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek in Door County. Seating is on wood benches. The stage is about 25 feet by 45 feet and of irregular shape because two tall white pine trees grow in the middle of the stage. Other pines ring the fringes of the stage. “The stage deck, unlike all of the stage walls, is made from recycled plastic,” said Northern Sky Theater artistic director Jeffrey Herbst. It’s water impermeable. The deck has held up really, really well. The rest of the stage, anything that’s vertical is cedar that has to be stained and treated and washed and kept. We went with that kind of material was partly because we wanted something that wouldn’t warp and because when it rains on that material, it actually becomes less slick. With cedar, when we had it as decking in the past, as soon as you had water on it, it was like an ice skating rink. The amphitheater is tucked in a forest and accessed by winding roads.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My seven books are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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