Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds at Kimmel Center | photo by John Vettese
The Academy in Peril and Jocularity: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends live in Philly
The current theory behind all things “Bill Murray” is to expect the unexpected of the 67-year-old lion of comedy. Murray hangs out with Scandinavian students in Scotland and washes dishes. Murray visits Austin during South by Southwest and hits up house parties. Murray sends wild rice to a Charleston restaurant table filled with women with the caveat, “Don’t gobble it.” Murray crashes an engagement party and gets his photo taken with the betrotheds. Murray pops up at Oscar’s Tavern in Rittenhouse Square on leave from his son’s wedding. How odd then could a chamber-devised album (New Worlds) of recitations of the writings Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain teamed with the compositions of Stephen Foster, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein be within that framework? Or a live performance art concert of those same musical moments at a damn-near-sold-out Academy of Music with forlorn cellist Jan Vogler, vexing violinist Mira Wang and prancing pianist Vanessa Perez?
Recalling his love of contemporary poetry (and its meter) and his coolly confessional tone during his more somnolent acting choices (say, Broken Flowers), Murray & Co. commenced the evening quietly – behind a podium – with readings from Hemingway’s Paris Review scribblings about the potential of playing an instrument and the “group feelings” of being a young author in France amongst other writers and artists. The result was a crabby “no,” and Murray relished the tense humor before Vogler, Wang and Perez crafted a charming Schubert-Ravel chamber tone – sometimes calm, sometimes lively. Before the trio sailed into the scarred tango of Astor Piazolla’s “La Muerte del Angel” and “Oblivion,” Murray teased about the pronunciation of “pascin” as rendered by the staff at the Barnes Foundation (“a nice place,” he said of the museum, a sentiment he repeated later when mentioning the Academy of Music) while reading of Paris and the glitterati of the war.
Murray continued his readings throughout the evening, growing more comfortable with funny character renderings such as the deeply rural Southern twang he lent to an racially charged excerpt from Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Thurber’s goofily satirical “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”
Along with read-singing from Foster’s mournful “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” it was Murray’s creaky singing voice that was most fascinating as its abandon was adorable and sincere. Gershwin’s bluesy “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Waits’ “The Piano has Been Drinking,” Van Morrison’s spirited “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God,” and John Prine’s “Angel of Montgomery,” all benefitted from Murray and his friends’ mix of warm wiry humor and lively recitation. Yes, Vogler & Co. were often as funny as Murray was, and that was a godsend. In fact the only thing that rang a bit false was Murray’s play-acting as a woman and running around the stage during the first half of his Sondheim/Bernstein “West Side Story” medley – a glorious run of the play that ended with a terse political reminder in “I Want to Live in America” – “Puerto Rico is in America.”
By the time they hit the encore, Murray encouraged the audience to sing along in accordance with Philly’s hearty victories as Eagles and Villanova fans, threw roses into the audience while running the length of the Academy, impersonated Jimmy Durante and did a tender dramatic rendition of “El Paso” to rival even Marty Robbins’.
Yes, he pulled another Bill Murray, and bully for him.