Driving from Missoula to see a play at the Philipsburg Opera House is a cool adventure. The landscape is sweeping and filled with wildlife and sunlight. When you pull into town, you can grab some ice cream and sweet potato fries at Doe Brothers just before the show. Or maybe hit up the Sweet Factory for a bag of root beer barrels and apple sours, if you're there on a Sunday (they're closed on Saturday). It's old-timey like that. Old men sit on benches outside the White Front Bar. A boy plays an accordion on the street.
The opera house is reminiscent of the Wilma Theatre, but smaller and richer in color. You eat popcorn with real butter and the actorsno need for usherstake your tickets and seat you. It's folksy and maybe what happened when Shakespeare put on his plays. Nothing highfalutin about it.
This summer the company is putting on three shows all directed by David Mills-Low and all of which run throughout the rest of July and August: a vaudeville variety show and two farces, The Fox on the Fairway and Your Flake or Mine?
Your Flake or Mine? is the story of Tony Dawson, a greeting-card writer who can't stop himself from speaking in couplets. His wife, Margo, is so sick of it she's divorcing him and about to marry her boss, Sagamore, who is the tycoon for a breakfast food called Grunchies. When Tony offers to throw Margo an engagement party in order to secretly win her back, things do not go quite as planned. That's because several other people keep showing up, including a nightclub singer named Coral who needs Tony to write some material for her; Tony's copy editor Lucille, who happens to be dressed as a go-go dancer; and Tony's neighbor Irving, who is a professional studenthe has degrees in dressmaking and other random subjects. People end up hidden in closets. Whiskey is drunk. Fighting ensues. Confessions are obtained. It's a solid enough sitcom that you've seen in a million different forms on television and on the stage for decades.
It's the acting of the Philipsburg cast that's really stellar. David Mills-Low, who plays Tony and directs the play, has been in a multitude of theatrical productions in and around Missoula. As usual, he's entertainingnot overdoing the comedy. We can feel that his character is under pressure when he shows up on stage with a horrified expression and his hair shooting out madly in all directions. He's charming as Tony: a guy who borders on pathetic but who's really a good guy with real talent, even if he writes greeting cards such as "As you sit there in your rocker / with your hair turning white, Spread some cheese on your cracker / for it's Mother's Day tonight." Colleen Watson as his wife, Margo, is funny in a cute and goofy Meg Ryan/Gilda Radner way.
The other cast members are fantastic, too, but David Simmons as Sagamore really gives the play punch. The brother of Hollywood actor J.K. Simmons, he's clearly got the power-actor gene. Whether he's bellowing with delight, begging for mercy or exploding into rage, he's extremely fun to watch.
The climax of the play hits when Tony's Grunchies cereal jinglewhich makes fun of Grunchies cerealends up on live television. If the first part of the first act seems a little slow, you'll know now that it was worth the wait. Even on a Sunday afternoon with a modest crowd, the actors did a fantastic job of pushing the chaos to its thrilling limits. Everything falls apart and then is gracefully put back together, like with the best sitcoms. And afterward, the actors ran down the aisle and to the door, where they graciously shook every audience member's hand and thanked them for coming. That's hard-working theater at its best.
Your Flake or Mine? continues at the Opera House Theatre in Philipsburg through Labor Day weekend. $18/$10 children 12 and under.