Bill Murray at Orchestra Hall is a show no one else could have done … – Chicago Tribune
What happens when the one and only Bill Murray recites American literature and flexes his pipes on songs from the great American songbook, backed by three accomplished classical musicians at a packed Orchestra Hall?
A unique and hugely enjoyable entertainment happens, that’s what.
“New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends” was the name of the show the famed Wilmette-raised actor and comedian, along with cellist Jan Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez, brought to Symphony Center on Tuesday night as part of a national tour in support of their new Decca Gold album of the same name.
The sold-out concert gave the versatile entertainer and onetime Second City mainstay, 67, yet another late-career chance to reinvent himself, in a rather wonderful new species of performance art few others would have dreamed up or could have brought off so beautifully.
Murray sang a little, danced a little, cracked a couple of jokes. The inveterate Cubs fan traded his tuxedo jacket for a Cubs windbreaker at the end, prompting a roar from audience members, one of whom had draped a Wrigley victory flag over the side of the platform that was put up on stage to accommodate extra seats.
That said, “New Worlds” had serious business on its mind too. As conceived by Vogler and Murray, the show was about building bridges between New and Old World cultures, about celebrating the connections, often unexpected, between literature, poetry and music, and how top-flight performers from different artistic disciplines, bonded in friendship, can illuminate those connections.
Murray’s readings from Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and other American authors and poets were the bedrock of the program, which segued from recitation to classical and pop musical standards by Stephen Foster, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. The music was carefully chosen to enhance the words, while the words lent resonance to the music.
The tone shifted from light to serious and back again. Murray sometimes recited over musical accompaniment; sometimes his recitations stood on their own. One selection merged into the next in a seamless, two-hour flow of spoken word, song and instrumental music. Like all highly skilled actors, Murray is a virtuoso of tone and timing. His typically laid-back manner fools no one, for there’s always a finely honed theatrical sensibility and command of craft peeking through.
The good-natured interaction among Murray, the golden-toned cellist, the vibrant violinist and the brilliant pianist on Tuesday night showed how much they admire each other and enjoy working together.
Who could resist James Fenimore Cooper’s evocation of a pristine early 19th-century American woodland (from “The Deerslayer”), as recited with all due wonderment by Murray over a movement from a Schubert piano trio?
Or his droll impersonation of the young Ernest Hemingway hanging out with a French painter in a Paris cafe of the 1920s, the “Blues” section from Ravel’s Violin Sonata wafting over it like cigarette smoke?
Or Murray’s thoughtful rendition, half-sung, half-spoken, of “Jeanie with the Light-Brown Hair,” a nostalgic slice of early America I have never heard so poignantly done as here? Murray may not have classically trained vocal technique, but his baritone is pleasant and musical and absolutely true to the words and the deep emotions they convey, and that was all that mattered.
There was so much else to savor all evening long. You haven’t heard “It Ain’t Necessarily So” until you’ve heard Murray’s sassy, jazzy transformation of that beloved Gershwin classic. Nor are you likely to forget the gutsy intensity of feeling he brought to Van Morrison’s soul standard “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.”
And then there were two big set pieces that touched on contemporary American political and social issues in extremely subtle ways — a 15-minute chapter from Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in which Huck relates how he enabled the slave Jim to sail to freedom (the cellist’s “Moon River” was the inspired accompaniment), and “America” (from Bernstein’s “West Side Story”), with emphasis on the line “Puerto Rico’s in America.”
It need hardly be said that this “American folk hero” (as he was dubbed in the program bio) brought down the house with his fervent rendition of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” chosen expressly for the Chicago stop on the performers’ “New Worlds” tour, he said.
After that number, Murray flung long-stemmed roses to the fans, who were up on their feet, loudly cheering the hometown favorite. “Thanks for coming — it’s nice to be home,” he told them, as he, Vogler, Wang and Perez waved their goodbyes.
If this is what it takes to sell light classical music and renew interest in neglected classics of American literature to a mass concert public, maybe Murray and friends are on to something. Long may their team flourish.
John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.