A few years ago, Rick Miller – Canada’s most talented impressionist since Rich Little – performed a show called Hardsell that was, essentially, about his fears of having sold out as an artist. He tore his hair out on stage about having hosted a video-gag show on ABC and toured his Fringe show MacHomer – a mash-up of The Simpsons and Shakespeare – for 15 years to feed his family instead of pursuing his muse in a purer fashion.
Given the concerns Miller outlined in that train wreck, it’s more than ironic that his next one-man show should be BOOM. “The Music, Culture and Events that Shaped a Generation,” reads the marketing copy. “One man. 25 years. 100 of the most influential figures.”
On paper, it seems like the most pandering piece of theatre ever to grace Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre – and we’re talking about a space that has hosted both the Blue Man Group and the Queen musical, We Will Rock You, so that’s saying something.
But: Darn it. Upon actually seeing BOOM, I have to admit it is Miller’s best solo show to date – with a brilliant design concept that allows him to use his inimitable vocal talents to tell this story in a way that no one else could. He even made this millennial (technically; I was born in the year Phil Collins released Face Value) get over his generational grudges – and enjoy sitting through tales of Frisbees and birth control and the Cuban Missile Crisis one more time.
Like Hardsell, BOOM is a “lecture/performance” – but it also borrows elements from documentary theatre and gives them a new twist. Miller has chosen three people to be our guide through the tumultuous postwar year: Madeline, a white woman from Cobourg, Ont.; Laurence, an African-American from Chicago; and Rudolf Schmitt, an advertising man and illustrator originally from Vienna – and born before the Second World War.
The form is entirely new: Miller performs on a stage that looks like a huge slide projector with a tall, translucent column rising from the centre of it. He begins by showing us videos of his interview subjects on the column – while he provides the voices for them. Then, the videos disappear and Miller tells the stories simply with his impressions – as David Leclerc’s projects provide a visual feast of fast-flying pictures and text.
There’s no real surprises here: We go from atomic bombs to Cold War hot spots, television to Tupperware. We get to hear Miller channel Louis St. Laurent and John F. Kennedy, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and (most entertainingly) singers from Little Richard to Mick Jagger to Janis Joplin.
Miller always takes pains to link his potted history to the personal lives of his three narrators – and he does it with surprising elegance. The reason Madeline is there is obvious: she’s Miller’s mother. But why Laurence and Rudfolf have been chosen is less immediately apparent – and part of the joy of the show is finding out where and when and how these three very different individuals intersect.
There’s no doubt that BOOM can be superficial, but how could a two-hour show covering 25 years be any more than survey? I went in ready to hate BOOM – but it’s not a bust at all.