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Theatre in Review: Boom (59E59)

Rick Miller. Photo: David Leclerc.

Inside Boom -- subtitled "The Music, Culture, and Events That Shaped a Generation" -- is an intriguing tale of three people that does much to illuminate the texture of life in the Baby Boom era. Too bad that it is held hostage to a distracting spectacle of imagery, lighting, and sound. Rick Miller -- a Canadian theatre artist, impressionist, and voice artist who has worked with Robert Lepage -- wrote, directed, and stars in this enervating entertainment, which seeks to provide an encyclopedic account of the years 1945 -- 69. It's a frustrating proposition that reheats all the well-worn stories you either lived through or have seen in the CNN documentaries, from the shock of mushroom clouds over Japan to the electrifying effect of Elvis Presley's gyrating pelvis to the Zen-induced bliss of the Flower Power movement -- all in ninety relentless minutes. People, places, and things rush by, forming a double-time parade that never pauses to allow anything to sink in.

The living, breathing people inside Boom -- all of them voiced by Miller -- are Maddie, his mother, raised in small-town Ontario, where alcoholism and abuse lurked behind an ultra-proper facade; Laurence, a black jazz/blues musician from Chicago; and Rudi, a Viennese immigrant of a slightly earlier generation. Only gradually do we come to understand what they have to do with each other; nevertheless, their stories resonate with the tumult of the postwar years. Maddie, growing up under the domination of her boozing, war-haunted father and law-and-order-loving brother, defies expectations by attending college, where she embraces feminism, free love, and psychedelic drugs. Laurence, bouncing between his feckless, feuding, dream-chasing parents and a grandmother with a gimlet eye for the world and its ways, gets an early schooling in racism and flees to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft. Rudi, born under the Nazi regime, comes of age in a Cold War Vienna cut into four by the occupying powers, falls in love with America, and, ultimately, moves to Canada, where the immigration laws are less restrictive; using his skills as a visual artist, he builds a successful career in advertising.

Each of these characters is an accomplished raconteur, whether it is Maddie describing the siren call of that new-fangled invention television or a fateful family battle; Laurence, noting that his childhood nicknames (Fat Man and Little Boy) echoed those of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; or Rudi recalling his wild ride around Vienna in a jeep filled with Russian soldiers on the day of the city's liberation. When the connections between them are, finally, revealed, they are genuinely touching, providing a striking illustration of how large, seemingly distant events can shape small lives. By themselves, the trio is more than enough for an engaging evening.

Sadly, the production suffers from an overthought, overwrought concept in which Miller (in Yannik Larivée's set design), standing behind a curved scrim, is, all too often, erased by a cascade of video images, including historical photos, snapshots from the characters' family albums, and crawling announcements of world events; it's an avalanche of data points that quickly becomes numbing. It's rather like trying to read a book in which the footnotes have taken over.

Miller also gives voice to a multitude of figures -- including Harry S. Truman, Jawaharlal Nehru, Edward R. Murrow, Ed Sullivan, Fidel Castro, and Bugs Bunny -- along with pop singers like Perry Como, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Eva, offering brief snatches of some of the era's top hits. These seem designed to showcase his skills as an impressionist; their contribution to the overall effect of the piece is dubious.

Many of the images are evocative and some of them are (to modern eyes) unintentionally hilarious --including the magazine ad explaining why television is good for children, a snack food dubiously named "Vitamin Donuts," and a TV commercial in which doctors explain why they choose those healthy Camel cigarettes. But the sheer rush of visual and audio information is hard to assimilate, especially given the cacophony of clashing tones they create. Bits of the Zapruder film or the live-on-TV assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby sit uneasily next to various pieces of pop culture detritus. Miller's often-spoofy impersonations prove jarring, especially as the era of rock and soul music arrives, introducing famous names that this grinning, ultra-clean-cut performer is uniquely unsuited to imitate. I don't know which of his rock-star bits is more embarrassing: Jagger, Janis Joplin, or Sly Stone. There are many others to choose from.

Boom is certainly technically accomplished, especially David Leclerc's vast library of projections and Bruno Matte's lighting, which makes good use of shadow-play effects. Creighton Doane's sound design provides a steady stream of hit tunes and original compositions. That there is too much of everything is surely not their fault.

Boom is never dull, thanks to the charming threesome of Maddie, Laurence, and Rudi, and it certainly will bring back memories for audience members of a certain age. But it is a regrettable instance of technology hijacking the whole show: The images and songs oversell the stuff we already know, making it hard to get close to the quirky individuals who provide the narrative oxygen. This is the first part of a trilogy that also looks at Generations X, Y, and Z, but I think I've seen enough. -- David Barbour

(15 January 2020)

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