Ever since the phenomenon of the baby boomers, there has been a fascination with trying to define people by their generation — baby boomers are competitive trailblazers, Generation X are disaffected and directionless, and millennials are narcissistic and tech-savvy. There are so many flaws in that kind of generalization that it doesn’t bear up to much analysis, but on the other hand, it has just enough social science behind it to make it irresistible.
As old as the tendency to classify people by their common characteristics is the individual’s struggle to define their own place in the group, and that’s where Rick Miller’s BOOM trilogy finds its home. In the first iteration, which had its world premiere in Calgary exactly five years ago, he looked at the baby boom generation through the lens of world events, pop culture, and four characters coming of age at various times and places in the 1950s and ’60s.
In BOOM X, the second part of the trilogy, he uses the same format, and again writes, directs and performs. It’s documentary theatre on acid, using news reports, TV commercials, movie posters and snippets of popular music to create a time capsule of each year from 1969 to 1995. The twist is that it’s a solo show, and he’s a master vocal impersonator, giving voice to over 100 characters ranging from 1970s news anchors to Gloria Steinem. Where BOOM saw him inhabiting Winston Churchill, Perry Como, Chubby Checker, and JFK, BOOM X opens with a Jimi Hendrix tableau and moves on through The Guess Who, Ike and Tina, the Bee Gees and Nirvana. Kung Fu Fighting and Take On Me were particular audience favourites the night I saw it, partly for Miller’s uncanny ability to pick up and throw off each musical persona in a nanosecond.
It’s a bit like Robin Williams at his most frenetic, hopping from impression to impression without a breath between them. You get the sense that his Neil Young is a trope he pulls out often, possibly just in casual conversation. There’s an element of pandering in the nostalgia, though, and at times he seems to be waiting for a gasp of audience recognition that doesn’t materialize.
If there is a narrative line other than the inexorable march of history, it follows another four disparate characters who were born at different points on the Gen X spectrum — Howard, Annika, Steph and Brandon. They are composites of 12 people that Miller interviewed, although he uses video of four people whose identities are very lightly fictionalized. “Howard,” of whom Miller says, “he could pull from Homer the poet and Homer Simpson in the same sentence,” bears a striking resemblance to University of Toronto professor and author Mark Kingwell, and at the opposite end of the Gen X years, “Brandon” may or may not be inspired in part by Toronto actor Sebastien Heins. Through the four characters, Miller explores the idea that while global historical events shaped their attitudes to some extent, their personal experiences were more selective.
The pearls in the show are the moments when Miller himself is more vulnerable, talking directly to the audience about the children of his generation becoming independent early because their parents were away “working or self-actualizing, or at a key party” and describing his own parents becoming gradually polarized, like the politics of the day. But these moments are very much not the focus of the production, which revolves around an elevated platform where Miller embodies the musical icons of the generation.
The creative team has a pedigree that ranges from Cirque du Soleil to Robert Lepage, and it shows in the carefully choreographed visual feast. It’s a technical masterpiece — the maelstrom of sound, light and projections along with the precision of Miller’s impressions make for a spectacle that rivals anything competing for your attention online.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing on opening night, however. There were moments in which the cursor was visible onscreen and distracting, sound malfunctions, and flubbed lines that gave it the feeling of a preview. There was a text crawl projected along the bottom of the central platform that had terrible sight-lines. I tried to crane my neck to read the litany of news headlines initially, but gave up before too long and just assumed that it probably continued to do that. One wonders if it might have benefitted from an external directorial eye, but I might be the only one who wondered that, because I was surrounded by a lot of satisfied humming of the hits of the ’80s on my way out.
(Photo of Rick Miller in BOOM X courtesy Craig Francis.)
BOOM X runs at Theatre Calgary on the Max Bell Theatre stage until Feb. 9.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.