Saturday, February 27, 2016

UNSEEN: A tribute to Marni Nixon

Melody Beck with John Martin
Teatro Vivaldi
19 February 2016
Reviewed by Samara Purnell

Have you ever wondered who the second nun from the left is in The Sound of Music’s “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Possibly not, yet tonight she was the star of the show “Unseen: A Tribute to Marni Nixon” and it’s almost a guarantee that you’ve heard her, if not OF her.

Marni (no “e”) Nixon finally got her “not-so-big” film break after years of rejection for leading roles in musical film. Despite the fact she could sing, she apparently lacked that “it factor”. Instead, she carved out a fine career as a “ghost” singer - the voice behind the faces of some of Hollywood’s finest leading ladies.

The top notes in Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamond are a girl’s best friend” the Loverly songs by Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr’s King and I and songs from West Side Story were highlights of her ghosting career and “Unseen”.  

With a name suited to her career, Australian singer Melody Beck assumes the identity of Marni Nixon in this one woman show, also written by Beck. She was accompanied throughout by John Martin on piano, creating an impressive and intuitive partnership.

The script imbues a sense of some bitterness and resentment but is done so with humour. It’s a difficult script in many respects and there were a few stumbles, but these were gracefully rectified.

“Unseen” began by introducing snippets of some of the songs Nixon had dubbed, before revisiting them more fully as the show unfolded.

Beck describes in first person, the task of not only having to match the nuances of each actress she was dubbing for, but to also take on each actress’ interpretation of their role, whilst making them sound better! Add to that another degree of impersonation for Beck to perform this, and it creates a rather challenging but entertaining premise for a show.

The audience was regaled with engaging stories of how Deborah Kerr befriended Nixon, finally “outing” her as the voice behind her face – a secret Nixon had kept, due to a confidentiality clause in her contract. Nixon had also formed a friendship with Audrey Hepburn. The same cannot be said for an apparently frosty Natalie Wood, who played the role of Maria in West Side Story.

After the West Side Story numbers, which included a very funny demonstration of the dubbing of “Tonight”, with Beck singing two parts simultaneously, a distinct Puerto Rican accent crept into several of Beck’s songs, but on the whole she did an impressive impersonation of the various actresses and singers.

Beck has a wonderful voice and seemed most relaxed when she was singing. It would be “Loverly” to hear more songs in full either as Nixon or purely in Melody Beck’s own voice.

This was an entertaining and informative show that lets the audience in on some Hollywood secrets. Beck has performed the show in front of Marni Nixon herself, garnering tips and feedback from her. Tonight, however, John Wood and a gathering of well-known Australian actors, in town for the CAT awards, supplemented by appreciative Canberrans had to suffice.

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