BILL MURRAY, JAN VOGLER & FRIENDS MAKE A APPEARANCE AT EDINBURGH’S FESTIVAL THEATRE ON THEIR UK TOUR
“I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.”
Critiquing performance requires an open mind. Sure, some understanding of form, style and genre will help. Context is important; knowing where and how a piece fits within an artist’s catalogue can provide insight into what is being presented. In the theatre or concert hall a trained eye will scrutinise presence and movement, the ears will assess vocalisation and technical proficiency, and the mind will follow storylines and characterisation. Critiquing performance requires a wealth of experience and knowledge of the subject. In this respect I am not qualified to pass judgement on Bill Murray and Jan Vogler’s “New Worlds” production but with an open mind I have observed this:
The show draws links between Johann Sebastian Bach and Ernest Hemingway, Van Morrison, Mark Twain and George Gershwin. It pairs comedy with classical music. It is rooted in the deep love of literature, poetry and performance. It is not a play, or a musical, or a recital, or a reading yet it draws on all of these performance types, creating a sort of cabaret experience that is at times abstract and entertaining, while otherwise being complete, immersive escapism.
The audience reflects this diversity; there are ladies in pearls and gentlemen in suits, there are students and retirees, celebrities, a couple down the front of the stalls in iconic red “Zissou” beanies. This collaboration clearly has broad appeal. It’s delightful to witness so many different people gathered in one room and once the show gets going everyone is off on a journey together.
The concept for the show is quite simple: American actor, Murray and German cellist, Vogler met a few years ago and became firm friends over their mutual interests in classical music and American literature. In 2016 the notion for a performance combining these came when Vogler heard Murray’s public reading of a Walt Whitman poem. The task of connecting the dots between music and words across continents is equally ambitious and exciting and the two leads, joined by Mira Wang on violin and Vanessa Perez on piano, are invested in delivering something that is both entertaining and enlightening.
The programme begins with an extract from an interview with Hemingway, Murray acting as interviewer and interviewee – acting as all characters throughout the evening in fact, his is the only voice heard from the stage. This isn’t as confusing as it sounds since he is an accomplished voice actor; later he portrays three separate French characters within a single scene to humorous effect. The Hemingway piece functions as an introduction for Vogler and his instrument. His playing is delicate and precise and in an instant the audience understands – this is a world class performance. There is a sort of thematic chronology to the programme. Overall the tone is quite light, romantic, with vivid language setting the mind to distant places and periods. On Ravel’s “Blues” the playing is especially jovial as Wang shines, both in her playing and appearance. The stage is minimal but glamorous, set before a grand piano, the respective performers in their suits and gowns. There are no distractions, the focus is always on the music or the words. Yet it’s not an entirely static or regimented production; audience participation is welcomed on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” as Murray’s naturally gruff vocal is revealed for the first time. His contributions are mainly spoken but as the evening progresses he becomes more inclined to melody. To be clear, Bill Murray is not a fantastic live singer. Anyone expecting him to pull off a Bing Crosby screen-to-stage transformation will walk away disillusioned. That’s not where his strength lies. In the lower register his voice is sweet and expressive, his accent softened slightly for added sensitivity to dynamics but as a skilled, dramatic performer he knows how to use his full range of voice to convey sentiment. He uses, or rather brutalises, a Van Morrison number to really stretch those vocal chords before laying into an utterly captivating reading from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. Vogler’s tender rendition of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” elevates this beautiful piece of storytelling and even as Murray speaks Vogler, a metre or so to his right, sits spellbound in silent rapture. Like a parent reading to a child, putting on different voices and accents for the characters, Murray holds his audience in this most intimate and calmly intense moment. Suspense in the story translates to suspense on the stage, emphasising how well crafted this showcase truly is.
The partnering of music with verse is confounding and revelatory to the very last. Songs feature towards the end of the set with an amusing medley from “West Side Story”. Indeed it’s part of the greater narrative of the show but doesn’t necessarily add anything besides humour – an opportunity for Murray to shake out some inner silly that’s obviously been bubbling below the surface all night. He’s done well to stay assuredly serious this long. The performers all take their leave but are hastily beckoned back with admirable vigour. “We got nowhere else to go” Murray tells the audience wryly and the ensemble proceed to run through a spontaneous repertoire of songs and poetry as diverse as the preceding event. There’s tittering among the audience in response to Murray’s pronunciation of loch before a “Loch Lomond” singalong ensues with the house lights illuminating the crowd and drawing them into the production once more.
This surreal evening closes with Bill Murray ambling through the stalls tossing long-stemmed roses to patrons. And a standing ovation. I’m still not entirely sure what we’ve just witnessed; something fun, intriguing, special, musical, unique, creative, inspiring, something beautiful…more than words can tell.