By Fred Pryce
The Voice Behind the Stars tells the story of Marni Nixon, a musician who dubbed the singing voices of characters in many of Old Hollywood’s biggest musicals at a young age, most notably The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady. I say ‘tells the story’ rather than ‘is the story’, as we never really witness one taking place. It follows a curious structure: Nixon, at an indeterminate age, sits at a table sipping tea, recounts the broad strokes of her career and interactions with celebrities in chronological order, and intermittently heads over to a prop microphone to sing her most famed parts. It presents us as both guests in Nixon’s home as well as subjects to her own life story’s conceptual retelling, reeling off anecdotes and accomplishments. The show presents ‘ghost singers’ as a jaw-dropping Hollywood secret rather than an interesting tidbit, and presents Nixon as unrecognised despite acknowledging a lifetime of credited achievements. A documentary on the subject would be fascinating, but this form feels stunted, a strange sort of self-worship from this onstage Nixon.
Eliza Jackson, who wrote and performs this one-woman show, certainly looks a lot like a young Marni Nixon, but more importantly can sing like her. A clever use of backing tracks allows her to jump in alongside the original actor’s voice, blending her own multi-accented soprano with our knowledge of the recorded history (though the microphone’s audio was occasionally too loud) . Unfortunately, Jackson’s acting is all affect, often pausing and flourishing unnaturally, and with a speaking accent more grating than the real Nixon’s. However, she nails the old-school musical theatre style effortlessly, and it was clear, given the way the audience hummed along and vigorously applauded, that the songs were the highlight of the show (I Have Confidence being the climax). In fact, as well as a documentary, I would have enjoyed a simple cabaret show featuring Jackson, or at least a more streamlined Nixon tribute, rather than her impression being awkwardly stuck between lecture and performance.
The main feature of director Ian Wood’s staging is the projection of photographs of the real Marni alongside the names of the featured movies. Unfortunately this proved distracting and did nothing to enhance the storytelling, rather somewhat cheapening the set into a mere powerpoint presentation. And running only a little under an hour long, the show seemingly knows not to outstay the audience’s warm welcome. Despite the short length, I found myself less than rapt, and wondering what I was supposed to be invested in. The only hint of dramatic tension is a brief digression about a previously unmentioned friend, but this small tragedy is only worth a small, sad pause before the show moves on, never to mention it again. I understand that the tone wasn’t intended to be overly dramatic, but it feels strange to include it amongst flowery accounts of meeting the likes of Julie Andrews, if it isn’t to be explored. In the end, the show is an excuse to pay homage to Marni Nixon and her terrific songs. Despite its short length, the show drags weightily for something so light.
Image Supplied by Eliza Jackson
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.