part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Civil Rights, Vietnam, Woodstock — whatever you may think of the Baby Boomer era, there’s no denying its inhabitants made some major history and represented an individuality and ambition rarely experienced since. So it only makes sense that Peter Baron and Meridee Stein’s musical about those enterprising folk, Boomers, which is playing through July 30 at the June Havoc Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, would exhibit those same qualities. But if it’s as sweeping and adventurous as the generation it purports to celebrate, its impact — in pretty much every way — is not remotely comparable.
Because although those born in the aftermath of World War II were consumed with finding themselves and developing their own personalities in coordinated tune with the world around them, Boomers wants to sample ideas without understanding the impetuses behind them. That’s why it can borrow liberally from shows as diverse as Oklahoma!, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and Next to Normal, and yet never feel as cogent or fulfilling as they do. Conceived from the ground up with well-defined voices, viewpoints, and structures, as well as a firm understanding of basic dramaturgy, they attained a cohesion and a coherence that Baron and Stein’s worthy but wobbly effort lacks.
Conceptually, Boomers is on solid ground. It follows an average man named Will (Peter Davenport) from his final teenage days as part of the Class of 1968 through his post-graduation malaise and war protesting, marriage to his high-school sweetheart Laura (Katy Blake), and eventually the problems that surround his raising a child of his own. The way Will’s free-spiritedness, optimism, and angst continually feed off of each other as the decades roll by — for example, his father (Charles Karel), a WWII veteran, kicks him out of the house when he decides to be a musician, an act that has a profound impact on Will’s every subsequent year — captures with acuity the at-the-time unknowable impact of even tiny decisions we make.
But any notion so freeform must be bolstered and grounded by unassailable specificity in its characters and plot points, and here that doesn’t happen. Will rebels against his father not for any tangible reason, but because he wants to avoid being swallowed by a society he doesn’t yet comprehend. The first real time we spend with Laura is the scene in which she’s leaving to join the Peace Corps; her flower-power younger sister Beth (Kelley Dorney) theoretically plays an integral role in Will’s evolution, but we never see her before she marches to her doom on the day of the Kent State shootings. And when Will, addicted to either cocaine or sniffing lighter fluid (it’s hard to tell), emotionally abandons his family when he turns 40, the resulting whirlwind of whining, suicide attempts, and tearful reconciliations has no discernible basis at all.
The intended story seems to be how Will progresses from an anti-establishment, uninhibited thinker to the ultimate of contemporary clichés—a man broken by his pursuit of the American Dream — but with so little time devoted to how he behaves and what he believes, that doesn’t come through. (Aside from scoring one touchdown, playing one concert, and shouting at police during the riots, Will does not do much.) And the second act, ostensibly about how Will’s son (Matthew William Schmidt) is positioning himself to repeat the cycle, is so breakneck of pace and confusing of narrative that it actually makes Will harder to understand, not easier.
Baron and Stein don’t focus enough on how all their pieces fit together, something that every successful epic musical of this type (such as Show Boat and Ragtime) has done, and so as a result they don’t. You can hear this in the songs, which alternately want to recall Springsteen, Sondheim, and Lloyd-Webber, in disconnected pop aria and quasi-operatic duets, trios, and ensembles alike (the Act One finale is titled — not inappropriately — “Five Minute Opera”). But it’s even more strongly felt in the bewildering presence of Will’s best friend, Joey (Marvin Riggins Jr.), whose dreams of being a stand-up comedian are interrupted by his draft notice: The character is clearly on hand only for comic relief, as he contributes nothing to the story and each of his four numbers is a comedy song, one as a hoedown (complete with cheesy hay-kicking choreography by Kevin Fitzgerald Ferguson) and two accompanied by tap dancing: one set in Da Nang and one set after an encounter with the hands of the Viet Cong, which leaves him even more fleet of foot.
You can’t care for Joey for the same reason you can’t care for anyone else: He’s a statement, not a person, and not an interesting one. Karel is a killer singer who should be given more than one Archie Bunker–style racism number, and Schmidt comes close to plumbing the depths of his character’s desolation at being born into a loveless family, but otherwise few of the performers genuinely stand out. Davenport is the sole major exception, a robust vocalist and ingratiating presence who drops in just enough detachment to show us Will’s conflicts, but not so much that we ever stop rooting for him. If some of his songs are unnecessarily overextended and pop-py — Jean Valjean doesn’t sing as high for as long a period of time as Will does — he makes them mean as much as they possibly can.
The show they’re in, however, is too scattered to mean much of anything. With intense clarifying of characters and expansion of almost every plot element (except the extraneous Joey), it’s not impossible that Boomers could live up to its potential as a dynamic chronicle of an explosive era. Right now, it just lands with a splat.
Boomers, The Musical of a Generation