15 Nov 2018

REVIEW: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and friends at The Michael Fowler Centre

From RNZ Music, 9:00 am on 15 November 2018

In a show set to surprise his fans, comedy legend Bill Murray produced some genuinely funny moments at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington last night. RNZ Music's Elliott Childs went along. 

Bill Murray and trio

Bill Murray and trio Photo: Photo supplied

If you’re anything like me, the first piece of music that comes to mind at the mention of actor and comedian Bill Murray, is Ray Parker’s theme song for the 1984 film Ghostbusters.

However, Murray has a history with music and has worked it into his comedy over the years.

Bits such as “Nick the Lounge Singer” on Saturday Night Live and his rendition of Nick Lowe’s '(What’s so funny about) Peace Love and Understanding' in Lost In Translation have proved that he can, at the very least carry a tune.

But this latest musical venture is a somewhat more serious affair and last night’s performance included a mix of popular songs, show tunes and readings of classic literature. Not what you would expect perhaps, but at this stage of his career, Bill Murray can pretty much do as he pleases.

A passionate singer, Murray was able to imbue the various pieces with plenty of emotion.His voice was better suited to some of the more gutsy material, while anything that required subtlety and finesse was best left to his fellow performers, renowned cellist Jan Vogler, Violinist Mira Wang and Pianist Vanessa Perez. 

The limitations of Murray’s voice were hard to ignore on songs such as 'Jeanie With the light Brown Hair' and Van Morrison’s 'When Will I Learn to Live In God' though the trio of musicians did their best to prop him up.

Though Murray's more sober material sometimes fell a little flat, the classical selections featuring just Vogler, Wang and Perez were as brilliant as you would expect from musicians of their calibre.

Thankfully, Murray played to his strengths for most of the night, highlighting the humour in pieces such as 'It Ain’t Necessarily So' (from Porgy and Bess) and using his impeccable timing to get laughs from readings by Hemmingway and other vaunted American writers.

In one piece of well orchestrated chaos, Murray lost his place in his book whilst Vogler, Perez and Wang attempted to fill the dead air. Things fell apart from there, culminating in a joyously sloppy version of Tom Waits’ 'The Piano Has Been Drinking' during which Murray proceeded to run his backside along the keys of the Michael Fowler Centre’s Steinway.

Everyone on stage was clearly enjoying themselves and even an overly long excerpt from Huckleberry Finn in the later half of the show could not take the wind out of their sails.

A couple of pieces from West Side Story helped pick up the pace a bit, with Murray delighting in the bizarre juxtaposition of a man pushing 70 singing an unhinged version of 'I Feel Pretty'.

The evening culminated in Murray running through the audience distributing roses, trailed by one overeager fan, who followed him on stage only to be lead off by security. 

Murray then handed the final rose to the page-turner sat next to Vanessa Perez, dragging the obviously thrilled young man to the front of the stage to bow with the musicians.

If the purpose of this show is for Bill Murray to share his passion for this material then he has succeeded and despite his limitations as a vocalist, produced some genuinely funny moments in the process.

Bill Murray, Jan Vogler, Mira Wang, Vanessa Perez

Bill Murray, Jan Vogler, Mira Wang, Vanessa Perez Photo: Photo supplied