by Samuel L. Leiter
You know those CNN documentaries that cover an entire decade in an hour? “The Sixties”? “The Seventies”? “The Eighties,” etc.? Film and video clips galore, talking heads, seriously dated advertisements, and reams of highlights from each era that remind us of what made them so memorable and different from one another.
Now imagine a one-man show that does the same thing for the years from 1945-1970 in two hours, with the same performer playing all the principal political and cultural figures, changing his voice and body movements, often with remarkable veracity, and doing it all in perfect coordination with a technically masterful use of acting, music, lights, stills, and videos.
That, in essence, is what Rick Miller, a Canadian actor, comedian, playwright, musician, director, and impressionist (who also holds degrees in architecture)—best known for his multi-voiced “Bohemian Rhapsody” parody—has created in Boom, a nostalgic survey of historical and cultural moments representing the baby-boom era. (Miller has supplemented it with similar shows based on the next couple of generations.)
The history is superficial, designed more to incite memories than insights, and some of it falls far short of perfection; but, it’s one of the most prodigiously complex solo shows I’ve ever seen. Boom already has been given hundreds of performances in Canada and the U.S..
For most of the two-hour, two-act show, Miller stands behind a tall, narrow, semicircular scrim, like a genie in a bottle. He begins outside it, chatting with videos of his soft-spoken mother, Maddie, in Cobourg, Ontario; a gravelly-voiced black musician, Laurence, in Chicago; and the German-accented Rudi, an Austrian immigrant born before World War II.
The show then weaves stories of their personal lives—with Miller doing their voices—through a performance/lecture covering 25 years, each one projected in big white letters. Meanwhile, an amazing array of stills and videos, many of them unfamiliar, as well as parcels of information, fly by in dizzying succession. The stories provided by Maddie, Laurence, and Rudi are mildly interesting, more to Miller, I suspect, than us. The show is so fast and jammed with facts that it could do without them and provide more room for interpretive commentary.
The audience is taken from the prosperous postwar years through the nuclear-threat 50s into the rebellious 60s, touching on perhaps 100 personalities of the times, from statesmen to TV stars to pop and rock singers. Bruno Matte’s brilliant lighting plays on Miller’s features from different angles as, with minimal costume pieces and wigs, he speaks and sings the words of the people whose faces succeed each other in the fast-flowing stream of countless projections provided by the genius of David Leclerc.
For fun, Miller plays games with a video or two, jokingly changing the words, for example, being spoken by John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in their televised presidential debate. Newsreel footage benefits from Miller’s old-style voiceovers, more authentic-sounding than any I’ve heard in period movies attempting to replicate the style. A master mimic, he delivers lines not only in various English-language accents but in what sounds like perfect German and French. And, at a few points, he gamely inserts observations on contemporary politics; stay tuned for a jab or two at 45.
Miller’s cacophony of voices incarnates leaders like Truman, Pierre Trudeau, Churchill, Castro, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others, but he also gives life to the great singing stars of the day, from retro crooners like Perry Como to the rock, country, and folk stylists of the revolutionary 60s, with one segment, naturally, devoted to Woodstock. Although he doesn’t always nail them equally as well, his impressions of Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Elvis, and the like are accompanied by fabulous physical iterations as he moves his slender, silhouetted physique in ways that instantly identify their personalities. For all Miller’s versatility, by the way, his voices are overwhelmingly male.
So much information flashes by in captioned sequences, with a nonstop barrage of commentary, that it’s impossible to absorb it all, or to get much more out of it than a potted version of the times it reproduces. Boomer or not, though, there’s no avoiding the fact that, on purely technical grounds, you’ll experience Rick Miller detonating an H-Bomb of talent in Boom.
Boom. Through February 23 at 59E59 Theaters/Theater A (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Two hours, one intermission. www.59E59.org
Photos: Paul Lampert (except where indicated)