Rick Miller's music rules in BOOM, but PuSh fest show could offer more nuanced history

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      Written and performed by Rick Miller. A Kidoons and Wyrd production. Presented by the Arts Club Theatre Company and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, January 20. Continues until February 13

      There’s a big gap between the level of skill displayed in BOOM and the level of satisfaction it produces.

      The skills are insane. While covering the years from 1945 to 1969, and examining the culture phenomena that produced and were produced by baby boomers, writer and solo performer Rick Miller effectively mimics everybody from Harry Truman and Winston Churchill to the Pillsbury Doughboy and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He plays guitar and piano, and he sings, impressively, as Perry Como, Mick Jagger, and Bugs Bunny in “Rabbit of Seville”. 

      The accompanying visuals are stunning. The centre of Yannik Larivée’s set is a huge cylinder—like a time capsule—that’s made out of scrim material, so, depending how it’s lit, it can disappear or it can become a projection surface for David Leclerc’s gorgeous visuals. When Miller is inside the cylinder and an image is projected onto it, he becomes a little boy standing stoutly in the archway of a grand apartment building in Nazi-occupied Vienna. When he’s Glenn Gould at the piano, stop-motion photographs of the eccentric musician click rhythmically into view. 

      Despite this razzle-dazzle, Act 1 is a snooze. Miller has built his script around three central characters: his Ontarian mom, Maddie; an Austrian-Canadian immigrant named Rudi; and Laurence, an African-American musician from Chicago. In the first act, it’s hard to get a handle on any of them. In the ’40s and ’50s, they were kids, and, in Miller’s telling, they don’t have a lot of agency, so they mostly become vehicles for the delivery of cultural information. And Miller delivers so much information at such high speed that it feels like we’re on a free fall through an Internet search. As he ricochets around the world drawing lines between Gandhi and Martin Luther King, between a Québec hockey riot and the rise of separatism, and between PTSD and his grandfather’s alcoholism, it’s impossible to know where to focus. 

      Act 2 improves because, for boomers like me, the ’60s were our time. The central characters start to interact with one another and they make adult decisions, so their stories get more interesting. 

      And BOOM has its politics on straight—kind of. Although the cultural heroes we see are almost all men, and the script gives no visceral sense of the rise of the women’s movement, Maddie’s feminism informs the script. And Laurence’s presence gives Miller access to the civil-rights struggle and to opposition to the Vietnam War. The show is oddly U.S.–centric, though—delving into the black-white divide in that country, for instance, while almost completely ignoring Canada’s treatment of its First Nations.

      Still, the music gets better in Act 2. It’s hard to complain about hearing snippets of Jagger, Joe Cocker, and David Bowie. And Miller performs his pants off. If only he had created a more coherent vehicle for himself.

      During the show Rick Miller summons everyone from the Pillsbury Doughboy to David Bowie.
      David Leclerc