By Dale King
Bill Murray found himself in Boca Raton on Friday night. He wasn’t there to bust ghosts or whack moles. And if he were not standing on one of the city’s largest outdoor stages with three other talented performers, he might have been sitting in the sold-out crowd of a Festival of the Arts Boca event, sipping a Heineken and enjoying the vibe.
But Murray, who literally burst onto the showbiz scene in the late 1970s in Saturday Night Live, then embarked on a lengthy movie career that ran a gamut from rude and insolent characters to more mature, philosophical personae, found a new groove last year – presenting poetry and prose readings along with classical music.
The program worked well when launched at Carnegie Hall last October, and played to a multitude of standing ovations at the Mizner Park Amphitheater Friday to begin the finale weekend of the 12th annual festival that brings music, lectures and films to downtown Boca.
Joining Murray on the stage were some impressive musicians: Cellist Jan Vogler, pianist Vanessa Perez and violinist Mira Wang, in a program called New Worlds.
Clearly a new direction for Murray, the effort came about after he and Vogler met during their travels and became friends in New York. Curious about how they could work together, they created a program showcasing the essence of American values through literature and music – including classical pieces, a Murray favorite.
The SNL alum known for outrageous, unplanned behavior and a vast array of ad libs was remarkably controlled. Many of his readings were serious, but as the show moved along and everyone on stage got a bit looser and zanier, Murray slipped into some of his old style.
He displayed his raspy, but adequate singing voice in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from Porgy and Bess, aptly accompanied by Wang on violin. With a modicum of push, he hit the high notes – nearly all of them on key.
He came closest to his crazy days in the midst of a West Side Story set. To no one’s surprise, he sang, “I Feel Pretty,” flitting and skipping across the stage as his vocal tones rose to soprano levels. He flapped his arms like a drugged swan, to the delight of the wall-to-wall audience that packed the Mizner Park grounds on a warm, windless evening.
His recitation of “If Grant had been drinking at Appomattox” by James Thurber, was superb, with Murray ably acting the part of a heavily intoxicated U.S. Grant who mistakes Gen. Robert E. Lee – on hand to sign the Civil War surrender – for Robert Browning.
Initially, Murray read from pages set on a music stand, either without accompaniment or with any or all of the musicians playing. At first, readings alternated with musical pieces. Vogler performed the prelude from Bach’s first Cello Suite and all joined Murray as he read from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, describing in vivid detail a forest, lake and mountains that “the hand of man has not deformed.”
Early in the show, applause was loud, but not intense, as if the gallery was waiting for a breakout piece. It likely came when Murray read an extended portion from Ernest Hemingway’s “With Pascin at the Dome” from A Moveable Feast. He altered his vocal tones for each character, a hint, perhaps, of Murray’s lesser-known work providing voices for animated characters.
Most somber – a story that clearly tugged at the audience’s senses – was his presentation of Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness,” a slowly unfolding story of a man dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.
Also met with sad sighs was the Stephen Foster song “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” Murray prefaced it by saying the song was the composer’s effort to recapture the affections of his wife. He sang it sweet and low, continuing through several rarely heard verses that extended the story.
His reading of a segment from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, bracketed by cello solos of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” set the perfect tone for the truly American adventure.
A lengthy finale and multiple encores had the crowd on their feet frequently. “We checked out early – we have no place to go,” admitted Murray, who took advantage of the extra time on stage to sing “Loch Lomond,” then he blew kisses to the audience.
He closed out with a rendition of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and “Did you Ever Have a Feeling?” performed in the gravelly voiced style of Jimmie Durante.
As the applause died away, one could only ponder that if Murray & Co. had arrived in Boca Raton exactly one month earlier, on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, the show could have gone on forever.