Where: Belfry Theatre
When: To Aug. 23
Rating: 3 1/2 (out of five)
With his new solo show Boom, Toronto actor-impressionist Rick Miller offers a mind-boggling and dizzying tour of the world between 1945 and 1969.
The most successful parts of this 100-minute extravaganza are nothing short of brilliant. Two aspects stand out particularly: Boom’s jaw-dropping design and Miller’s shape-shifting ability to metamorphose from one character to another like a chameleon.
Whether Boom entirely succeeds in transcending the sum of its multitudinous parts is another question. Some will be moved and bedazzled; others will be merely impressed. Either way, the show is worth seeing — certainly I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
Miller aims to give a condensed history of the world at an especially crucial period. When atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago, the path of humankind was irrevocably altered. Yes, the Second World was ended. But at what cost?
Enter the baby-boomer generation, a massive population spike that benefited from post-war prosperity and witnessed mind-boggling historical events (Miller’s show ends with the 1969 moon landing). Presented as a sort of lecture-documentary, Boom aims to touch on the key events that defined this generation: Cold War crises, the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, the impact of television, the space race and the (still continuing) struggle to end racial prejudice in North America.
The show is as much about pop culture as politics. Miller offers crowd-pleasing mimicries of Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Nat King Cole and Hank Williams (the most successful impersonations are Joe Cocker and, oddly, John Kay of Steppenwolf). To provide a human element to this kaleidoscopic newsreel, he follows the intersecting stories of three ordinary people. There’s the narrator’s mother Maddie, who overcomes a hard-bitten working-class background to get a college degree, a black American bluesman called Laurence and (most interestingly) Rudi, who grew up in war-ravaged Vienna and found success in the New World.
Miller performs mostly inside a giant column-shaped scrim, with a tilted platter/platform for a base. Upon this, an ever-shifting array of images and video clips are projected, evolving from black-and-white to colour. With great ingenuity, Miller interacts with this technology, providing voices for everyone from Richard Nixon to Edward R. Murrow and Gandhi. Some choices are left field, such as Glenn Gould, although most of them are the usual suspects. Such rapid-fire, high-wire shtick is Miller’s specialty — Boom is obviously designed as a showcase for his considerable strengths as an entertainer.
The greatest challenge in a show like this is avoiding superficiality. When one presents a textbook’s worth of information, achieving depth is nigh impossible. Boom certainly offers poignant moments. However, there are few surprises here. As well, one of the show’s chief attractions, its brobdingnagian scope, also becomes a limitation — there’s a sense Miller is constricted by the vastness of the time-line he’s chosen to represent.
That said, one must admire this performer’s risk-taking sense of ambition and adventure. Yes, the ideas presented are not particularly original, nor are they examined deeply. But Miller — working with a terrific team — has managed to meld theatre and technology in an exciting, innovative manner that delights and, on occasion, amazes. That is no small feat. And that is why you need to go see Boom.