Bill Murray wows crowd with intimate ‘New Worlds’ musical evening at Kleinhans, Buffalo News

Bill Murray packed them in Wednesday in Kleinhans Music Hall. All ages were there, filling the seats to the rafters.

And all night, that packed hall was silent.

It wasn’t just the star power, that it was Bill Murray, whom everyone knows from movies, before us on the Kleinhans stage. I think everyone got over that in five minutes.

It was that the evening was so unusual.

It was heartfelt, too. You sensed that right from the start. Murray walked in silently, violinist Mira Wang on one arm, pianist Vanessa Perez on the other. They took their places with their instruments, joined by the distinguished cellist Jan Vogler. Then the star began to speak.

“George Plimpton,” he said. It was soon established that Plimpton, a name almost never spoken now, was interviewing Ernest Hemingway for the Paris Review.

That set the tone for the night – formal, yet intimate. Murray doesn’t mince words. He gives you no small talk. He just places you in the center of a drama, and you are drawn in.

It gives you a new look at his genius. He’s not a great singer – not even a good one – but he got at the soul of Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.” He started out simply speaking the words, with the musicians carrying the melody for him. When he finally began singing, shyly and unpretentiously, he just had you in the palm of his hand.

Before singing the song, he explained that Stephen Foster had been married to a woman called Jeanie, but they had split up, and the song may have been his way of trying to win her back. I can’t be the only listener who wondered if the song could have hit home to the twice-divorced Murray. Probably it struck a chord with a lot of people there.

All the selections had that kind of personal feel.

Murray seemed to resemble an entertainer of an earlier era, an era before movies, radio, TV and everything else. When entertainers had a variety of talents and abilities and ways to get you to use your imagination.

The musicians shared his vision. They didn’t zone out, duck backstage, or do any of those other annoying things musicians sometimes do. They were always engaged, enjoying, in the moment. They played with passion, and they showed pizzazz. They didn’t play down to the listeners, but they played to us.

It’s to everyone’s credit that the evening was so varied. Murray and his friends took us to the Civil War era, to the Paris of Ernest Hemingway, to to the early 19th century world of Franz Schubert and his American contemporary, the writer James Fenimore Cooper.

As the trio played Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” he even danced a moody tango with the violinist. He told an entire story with his gestures and looks.

The textures and emotions also ran the gamut. Some of the heartiest applause of the evening greeted Van Morrison’s “When Will I Learn to Live In God,” which Murray belted with rough-hewn passion.

Two selections in particular were tremendously riveting.

One was the very funny “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” by the humorist James Thurber (a name you almost never hear now). The drunken U.S. Grant, the dignified Robert E. Lee that Thurber imagined – Murray had them both spot on, his timing and concentration perfect. The story built perfectly to its outrageous punchline.

The other was the excerpt Murray read from Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a story near and dear to Buffalo. He did all the different voices, including Huck; Jim, the slave Huck is helping to freedom; and the two men who confront Huck, searching for escaped slaves. Murray’s timing and inflections were so engrossing that you were completely drawn in, mesmerized more than you would be by any movie. I found myself picturing the scene – the water, the canoe, Jim hiding in the river, the stillness of the night. My husband, Howard, could hardly be described as a bookworm. He said later that when the story ended, it was like coming out of a trance.

I had to miss the last pieces, which I regret. But I imagine that must have been how it felt when the entire evening ended. Like coming out of a trance.

I don’t think anyone who was there will ever forget it.