Rodeo Reviews: Boom

Boom is certainly ambitious. It aims to walk the line between one-man-show, documentary and multimedia experience, all in service of a history lesson for the young and nostalgia trip for the old. Filled to stuffing with archival footage, and anchored by interviews with writer/director/star Rick Miller’s family and friends, it’s intriguing on paper.

It’s also a work-in-progress, with Miller using audience feedback each night to help shape his next mounting of the production.

That’s good, because it needs work.

Part of the problem may just have been the timing. Boom is surely demanding of its star, who takes on around 100 different “roles” (mostly just quick impressions), and on the third-to-last performance, the toll on his voice was obvious. Miller strained to hit many of the notes, and his voice was often too gruff to do justice to his subjects. Judging from reviews of the other performances, and from Miller’s previous plays like the global smash MacHomer , he surely deserves the benefit of the doubt.

The bigger issue by far is the script. In trying to compress 25 years of geopolitical and pop culture transformations into just under two hours, Miller’s made something that’s more Buzzfeed list than theatrical experience. Boom retells a history that’s already been told countless times, and while he says early on that he doesn’t want it to be just a nostalgia trip, it’s hard to imagine many audiences that won’t be familiar with most of the events he brings up. Especially when the sheer volume of events means that nothing’s given much time — with 30 seconds on Elvis here and a 10-second impression of Edward R. Murrow there, it really is the equivalent of looking at a .gif and moving on to the next event.

Miller tries to counter this through following three characters throughout the 25-year span: his mother, growing up in small-town Canada; his father, who will become an Austrian immigrant in the 1960s; and a musician and family friend who will move to Canada to avoid the draft. All three stories do have moments that could potentially be compelling, were they given room to breathe. His father’s story in particular, of growing up in occupied Vienna and ending up in Canada when America’s borders weren’t as open to immigration, is one that hasn’t really been told. But with all three stories competing with each other and the entire zeitgeist of each year, they’re compressed to the point that they’re almost entirely superficial. You can see the value — they’re the only elements of this story that hasn’t already been repeated ad nauseum — but they get lost in whirl of Miller’s historical retellings.

All of that could be overcome if Boom had some sort of thesis, some purpose that puts a new spin on the information he presents. His mission is clear enough — as he explains to his mother at the beginning, he’s curious what shaped his her upbringing — but aside from a timeline it’s hard to see what he really learned. He mentions a few times the economic influence of the boomers as children and teens, but there’s almost no exploration of what it meant for children to have such influence on the culture.

Instead, there’s a string of impressions of major figures from each year, but given that the years he selected run from the birth of the first boomer in 1945 to the first pangs of adulthood for the generation, that means that essentially none of the historical figures he mentions are actually boomers. From Churchill to Trudeau to Bob Dylan, the Beats and Leonard Cohen, all were born before the boom kicked off at the end of the Second World War. It’s like trying to understand millennials by spending half your time talking about Depeche Mode and Brian Mulroney — sure, it gives some context, but then what?

That’s not really a criticism of Miller’s work in particular, since there’s been a decades-long tendency to talk about the baby boom generation in terms of Woodstock and free love and leave it at that. But it’s a source of constant frustration that, in talking about the boomer generation, no one ever talks about what happens once they became adults — how they became the “Me Generation” in the ’70s, or what they did once they actually came into power, both economically and politically. Boom touches on it briefly — they grew up, became yuppies, and worse, became their parents — but that just makes it all the more frustrating that so little effort goes into understanding who that generation actually was, not just what they wanted to be when they were kids.

It’s not hard to see why Miller wanted to put together Boom , why the Stratford Festival commissioned it, and why Theatre Calgary was quick to pick it up once that commission fell through. But if Miller wants it to be a documentary of a generation and not just a nostalgia revue, it still has a way to go. There are much better pieces at this year’s High Performance Rodeo; if you’re interested in compelling theatre, watch those instead.

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