Mixed Nuts: Bill Murray’s Hybrid Concert is Only Half Successful

If you’re a who’s-who in Boca Raton, you were probably at Mizner Park Amphitheater last night for Festival of the Arts’ undisputed headliner. I spotted Susan Haynie, Robert Weinroth, Irvin Lippman, Chrissy Biagiotti and the Savaricks, all gathered to hear one of the festival’s most eccentric bookings to date: Bill Murray and friends’ much-anticipated “evening of music, poetry and prose.”

Not all of them made it to the very end of the two-hour, multi-encore program, and I can’t say I blame them. Starting at about 15 minutes into the show, the walkouts began, in shocking numbers for an artist of Murray’s renown. Far from being philistines who “didn’t get it,” these early departures witnessed the same show I did.

Rather than opening with a spirited musical number that plays to his strengths, Murray kicked off the performance with tedious, turgid readings of poetry and fiction from Walt Whitman and James Fennimore Cooper that seemed never to end, and that required a more sacred space than the Mizner Park Amphitheater—with its interruptions of revving motorcycles and screaming frolickers bleeding into the venue—to be appreciated. Furthermore, I risk stating the obvious by noting that gilded readings of classic literature are not the reason Bill Murray would fill this, or any other, amphitheater.

For the Cooper piece, Murray’s classical trio—cellist Jan Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez—supplemented the reading with a stellar performance of Schubert’s Andante un poco mosso. Generally, though, the musicians and the movie star took turns in the spotlight, the players outshining the celebrity: Vogler on Bach’s aching, lilting Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G minor; and Wang on Ravel’s “Blues,” the violinist passionately navigating the composition’s shifts between beauty and beast, furiously attacking her hand-plucked strings. It was the evening’s most stunning performance.

It wasn’t until Murray dusted off his vocal pipes on “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” with the former “SNL” lounge singer drawing out every note in all its boozy grandeur, that the fusion of onstage talents finally came alive. The Gershwin number indeed felt like a defibrillator jolt to an almost-flatlining concert.

From that welcome release of awkward tension, a better balance emerged between humor and insight, classicism and modernity. Murray’s sloshed, deliberately tuneless take on Tom Waits’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking” was a hilarious trifle, followed by the more poignant and rhythmic “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God” by Van Morrison, which earned the evening’s first standing ovation.

The literary readings improved, too. The players’ winsome rendition of “Moon River” found perfect harmony against Murray’s animated reading from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” specifically the key scene in which Huck weighs the existential moral calculus of lying to preserve Jim’s freedom. James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” likewise retained its appealing satirical heft.

Murray saved his best moments for the ostensible final number, a “West Side Story” medley of “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty” and “America,” the actor hilariously pantomiming feminine vanity and goofily hoofing around the stage while his trio concentrated on Leonard Bernstein’s complex musical language. Murray played both the clown and the serious dramatist over the course of the evening; I don’t think I’m alone in preferring the former.

The lengthy encore, not included in the program, continued the show’s penchant for musical variety, from the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomand” to Marty Robbins’ almost-kitschy “El Paso,” complete with Murray clutching his side when bullet-struck, like the dying cowboy in an old movie. “We checked out early,” Murray told the audience, as the show had well exceeded its 90 minutes. “We have nowhere else to go”—perhaps a rare moment of improv in a production that was otherwise scripted to a T.

Murray concluded the night on a romantic note by tossing white roses into the crowd, first from the stage and then from among the audience and the amphitheater rafters.

Would that Murray’s contributions have had the overall consistence of quality and engagement that Vogler, Wang and Perez brought to the performance, this unusual evening would have been an unqualified success. But structurally, this hybrid concert barely stands: Murray lost much of his audience early on—both physically and those who mentally checked out—that he had to spend the second half winning us back. Charming in spots and moving in others, this “evening of music, poetry and prose” is still a work in progress.