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Unexpected Bill: actor Murray dazzles as a singer

12 June, 2018 — By Bob Mccabe

Bill Murray and Jan Vogler

AS unexpected as it is to find Bill Murray playing the Royal Festival Hall, it is even more unexpected to find him there singing I Feel Pretty from West Side Story.

The much-loved actor is accompanied by noted German cellist Jan Vogler, bringing us their collaborative New Worlds, a show as contradictory as Murray himself often is, mixing musical extracts by Bach, Ravel, and Bernstein, with Murray’s dramatic readings from classic American literature – Hemingway, Walt Whitman, James Fennimore Cooper and Mark Twain.

More than anything, it proves that Murray is now a man who, when he isn’t making Wes Anderson movies, is in a position to do whatever the hell takes his fancy. And it makes for a delightful couple of hours.

Pianist Vanessa Perez and violinist Mira Wang play alongside Vogler and constitute the “friends”, but it is clear from the uproarious response he gets from the audience on his entry, that despite the more classical nature of the setting, everyone is here to get a glimpse of the Zen comedy god. Murray knows this and never disappoints. And to his credit, he never undersells his material or his co-stars either.

The first part of the show emphasises the music and the solemnity of the readings. At which point Murray, acknowledging the unexpected nature of the evening, tells the audience “This stuff is rough” but not to worry, “The worst is over.”

Shortly thereafter, he starts to sing, in a baritone that may waver but at times positively crackles with emotion and playfulness. He encourages the audience to join him on It Ain’t Necessarily So, dives deep into the sadness and loss of Stephen Foster’s Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair, pauses to have some fun – and play the keyboard with his forehead – on Tom Waits’ The Piano Has Been Drinking, before launching into a staggering take on Van Morrison’s When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God, which sees the normally laid-back Murray practically barking, berating and beating himself up in front of us.

A wonderfully evocative, extended reading from Huck Finn finds Murray providing voices for all the characters, and dropping several N-bombs in a non-revisionist manner (as Twain intended), bookended by a beautiful chamber version of Moon River, “Huckleberry friend” and all.

The show climaxes with a selection from West Side Story that highlights the actor’s versatility – a delicate and moving rendition of Somewhere moves into the pure joy and silliness of I Feel Pretty and America.

A seven-song encore moves from the beat poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti through the songs of Smokey Robinson to Bruce Hornsby to an absolutely heartbreaking take on John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery.

And then he is gone, leaving behind an evening that was as unexpected and perplexing (was he saying something about his country? Was he just goofing off?) as it was remarkable. Two things those that were there will take away with them – we got to see Bill Murray sing My Girl, reworked as a delicate slice of middle-aged heaven. And the man is still a god.

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