There’s a passage early in Bill Murray’s 1999 book Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf where he persuades his mother to attend a variety show at a small theater next to a lake outside of Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

“An amazing would never see in New York,” he proclaims. At the time, Murray’s parents had recently acquired a summer cottage rental just over the Wisconsin border near his hometown of Wilmette, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago.

Murray’s mother takes the bait. She and his sister Laura make the four-hour drive through the sticks to a place called the Showboat. What they find in the north woods is quite wacky and undeniably Wisconsin —  an emcee in high zippered patent leather boots with a green lamé jumpsuit and a blond wig raving about Liberace, a husband and wife accordion duo, an unruly dog act, a grandfather and grandson playing spoons, a bartender presenting the catch of the day to fanfare, and the owner regaling the audience with tales of his Saint Bernard’s bravery.

A few years back, Murray struck up a friendship with the world-renowned German cellist Jan Vogler after the two sat next to each other on a transatlantic flight. I wonder if the Showboat crossed Murray’s mind at all when Vogler first suggested they collaborate on a performance.

Alas, there were no dog acts, wigs or recently caught fish Tuesday night at the Riverside Theater during Murray and Vogler’s presentation of “New Worlds.” Instead, Murray read from Hemingway, Twain and Whitman, sang show tunes, Tom Waits and Van Morrison, while accompanied by Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez.

Murray and friends

Bill Murray, Vanessa Perez, Mira Wang, Jan Vogler at the Riverside Theater.

Critics and fans seemed surprised by this turn, but Murray has dropped a few bread crumbs over the years. He first gained national recognition as an original cast member of Saturday Night Live, known for such characters as schmaltzy Nick the Lounge Singer. In 2016, he sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as Daffy Duck during the World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago. He is a connoisseur of classical music. Most notably, he read from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at a Barnes & Noble event in 1996.

The following might be a stretch, but I think it’s prescient — there’s a scene in Ghostbusters II where Murray (as Peter Venkman) saunters uninvited into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, picks up her cello and plays it like a guitar. (This also happens to be the moment I fell in love with Murray as an actor.)

Despite this foreshadowing and the release of New Worlds the album last September, some skepticism remained at the Riverside. Not to mention, a few fans were dressed as Murray’s best known characters. He addressed the elephant in the room about twelve minutes in, remarking with masterful comedic timing, “This is where people usually, uh, get up and walk out.”

Bill Murray feature

Bill Murray

Before this moment of levity Murray was noticeably nervous. But it didn’t take long for him to loosen up and find his groove. The show brilliantly blended poignant readings peppered with hilarious accents, adept instrumentation by the trio, and splashes of Murray’s signature physical comedy. The audience sing-alongs were especially rousing and wonderful.

During the encore, Murray did Jimmy Durante’s character from the 1942 film The Man Who Came to Dinner, singing the lines, “Did you ever get the feeling that you wanted to go, but still had the feeling that you wanted to stay?” It was an uproarious rendition that played perfectly in the midst of what ended up being 35 minutes of bonus revelry.

“The truth is, we’ve got nowhere to go,” Murray admitted after the Durante bit, which was followed by a touching version of Marty Robbin’s “El Paso.” To close the show, Murray read Lucille Clifton’s “Blessing the Boats” then threw roses into the crowd as the trio played “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals, R. 12” by Camille Saint-Saëns, which happens to be the opening track off New Worlds the album.  

As Shepherd Express music writer Evan Rytlewski suggested on this week’s episode of The Disclaimer, “I think the album is just an excuse to put him on stage and make people happy.” Having sampled the album and seen the show, I definitely agree. But it wasn’t just the crowd that left pleased — at various points throughout the night Murray was downright giddy.

It’s understandable that some might question Murray’s sincerity with a show as seemingly unlikely as this. After all, he is a notorious rapscallion. When he and Vogler stopped by NPR’s Morning Edition, host Rachel Martin played a clip of him reading “The Deerslayer” by James Fenimore Cooper.

After the clip, Martin commented, “Bill, whether you like it or not, part of the allure of you as a performer is that people sometimes can’t really tell if you’re being serious or if you’re pulling one over on everyone and this one kind of reads that way.”

To which the great Bill Murray replied, “I can’t tell you the answer to that one, because that would be just like showing you where Waldo is.”

Full theater murray

Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and friends at the Riverside Theater.



Load comments