The always-unpredictable Bill Murray brought his "New Worlds" concert to the Academy of Music on Wednesday, charming an audience that didn't know quite what to expect, beyond a general sense that there would be literary readings and classical chamber music in an ensemble led by the noted cellist Jan Vogler.
Murray slipped from Whitman to Hemingway to popular song lyrics, and portrayed figures from a hungover Ulysses S. Grant to Maria from West Side Story. And the audience went along wherever he led.
They were particularly beguiled by local references to the Barnes Foundation, compliments to the ornate, 19th-century Academy of Music, and an exhortation to sing along with Gershwin like true Eagles fans.
Murray's roots, let's not forget, are in improvisational theater rather than stand-up comedy, which accounts for how effectively he sustained some of the longer readings by conjuring a gallery of voices and personalities, whether speaking or singing. And can he sing?
Probably better than he wanted us to believe. Many actors study voice as a matter of course, and Murray's vocal instrument is extremely flexible and with such a range of color that in the song "El Paso" he managed notes resembling the more soaring moments of the original recording by Marty Robbins.
But the content that most interested Murray was rhetorical, allowing him to unearth ideas and undercurrents that were always there but somewhat disguised by the melodies they were attached to.
West Side Story selections got a good audience roar with the newly relevant lyrics about the Puerto Rican presence in America. Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" went well beyond the wit of the original and turned into something better — an offhand embodiment of agnosticism. And that felt like the under-the-surface watchword of the evening.
Murray's anguished rendition of Van Morrison's "When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?" certainly supported that theme. A long reading from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — where the title character, despite his ineptness, successfully ferries an African American slave to freedom — portrayed a state of grace that visits the least likely suspects.
And in a brilliant stroke of theatricality, the reading was followed by "Moon River." Though Murray's delivery in the start of the evening was unadorned and even emotionally neutral, his later readings had Shakespearean stature minus the formality and with startlingly original line inflections.
Murray was not the whole show. Presented by the Kimmel Center and Live Nation, the "New Words" tour spins off the engaging Decca Gold disc, also titled New Worlds, with chamber music serving as commentary and accompaniment in well-chosen contributions from J.S. Bach, Franz Schubert, Maurice Ravel, Astor Piazzolla, and others.
At Wednesday's show, the chamber ensemble headed by Vogler, pianist Vanessa Perez, and violinist Mira Wang gave many different textures to the evening. Vogler's smartly colored performance of the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 first movement — in one of the better readings you're likely to hear — particularly set a somewhat serious but not studious tone for a rapt, appreciative audience.
The concert's format details departed somewhat from the recording. The delightful James Thurber speculative account of a drunk Ulysses S. Grant meeting Gen. Robert E. Lee is accompanied by the Ravel Violin Sonata in the recording. Now the two entities are heard separately.
During a series of encores, high- and middle-brow fused when Murray was given a bouquet — obligatory for triumphant opera divas — and then pulled a Bruce Springsteen, dashing out into the audience, tossing the blooms every which way. Or was he doing a Florence Foster Jenkins?
The "New Worlds" tour plays Thursday at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. Information: 609-258-2787 or mccarter.org.