Stage Left: Rick Miller's Boom X is a somersault through time

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Woe to those who endeavour to find fault in Rick Miller’s Boom X, a new show now playing the Belfry Theatre. The very fact the wiry dynamo pulls off his one-man extravaganza at all (he plays 100-plus characters) is nothing short of miraculous.

Seeing Boom X Thursday night was like watching a plate-spinner do somersaults on a flaming high wire while quoting the entire works of Shakespeare. Is it memorable, lasting theatre? Well, that’s almost beside the point, given the 130-minute romp is just so darned fun to watch.

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Boom X is the Generation X sequel to Miller’s Boom, which looked at the baby boomer generation (a third show is now in development). Boom X is a kaleidoscopic look at popular culture from 1969 through 1995. We get a warp-speed glimpse of politics, music, history and the Toronto performer’s own story.

Miller, a gifted impressionist, commences with Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. We’re then supersonically catapulted through such historical events as the October Crisis, the Mai Lai massacre, Altamont, the École Polytechnique massacre and Ronald Reagan’s infamous “We begin bombing in five minutes” quip. Much of the show is Miller’s jukebox impressions of pop hits, everything from Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf to Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure.

Four biographies are woven throughout the action. We hear from Miller’s German stepsister, his old university professor, his gay DJ neighbour and a woman who turns out to be his wife. Once again, mimicry comes into play — video clips of the four are played with Miller providing the audio through his ever-present headset.

He performs mostly behind a scrim, upon which a cornucopia of images and videos is projected (credit for the spectacular display goes to designers Bruno Matte, Nicolas Dostie and Irina Litvinenko). Miller shifts continually from one character to another, changing wigs and costumes in scant seconds. On a sheer technical level, it’s jaw-droppingly impressive.

Experiencing Boom X is a bit like hearing Billy Joel’s name-checking hit We Didn’t Start the Fire. The show’s a supersonic pop-cult torrent, allowing the audience little time to absorb or savour what’s on offer. Another director (Miller self-directs) might suggest variations in pacing in order to give viewers time to take a breath … and think.

Still, this ambitious venture is more than a crowd-pleasing novelty act. Miller does insert moments of self-reflection and soul-searching in between the theatrical fireworks. Boom X, continuing to Aug. 18, is worth seeking out.

My main thought upon watching Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was how much comedy has changed since 1962.

The celebrated Stephen Sondheim musical, a spoof on ancient Roman comedies, is a Broadway hit that’s still staged regularly across North America. People love this song-stuffed farce: the slapstick, the mistaken identities, the whirlwind denouement. The audience at Tuesday’s preview performance at the Roxy Theatre adored the show, rewarding it with cheers, whistles and a standing ovation.

I found it less satisfying. Like an old rerun of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the humour in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum hasn’t dated particularly well. As well, farces require a champagne effervescence to truly fly. While there were laughs, on this particular night the performance didn’t fully coalesce.

The musical centres on a slave, Pseudolous (literally “faker”), who’s determined to earn her freedom. She strikes a deal with her owner, Hero. If she helps him in his quest to marry the sexy courtesan Philia, he’ll set her free. Shenanigans ensue.

The show’s corniness is especially apparent in a post-South Park/Simpsons age in which our funny bones are honed — whether we like it or not — by ironic memes and dark satire. For example, Domina commissions a sculptor to capture her likeness. She quips to an underling: “Carry my bust with pride!” For the modern audience, the musical’s eye-winking Benny Hill sensibility — de rigueur in the 1960s — has a distancing effect.

Director Kevin McKendrick has endeavoured to leaven this by modernizing the show. There’s cross-gender casting. Britt Small plays the traditionally male lead role, Pseudolous. Some courtesans are re-cast as men in drag and bondage outfits. The latter did make for funny moments, particularly a campy funeral scene in which they portray “hand-maidens of sorrow.”

Central to the musical’s success is the character of Pseudolous, who also narrates. Small had undeniably good moments. However, on this night, her quirky, offbeat style of clowning didn’t translate into a sufficiently strong stage presence.

And while there’s talent on the stage (notably strong singing from Gabriel MacDonald as a lunk-headed Roman soldier), the production had a scattered, dog’s-breakfast quality. This may improve as the run continues to Aug. 11.

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