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March 16, 2004

Orlando Sentinel

It's showtime at the Central Florida Fair. So what if it's 5 p.m. on a Wednesday and the rows of white plastic chairs in front of the fair's main stage are mostly empty? Toxic Audio is hard at work, even while a pair of little girls in blond ponytails concentrate on their funnel cake and a teenage couple in the front row get up and leave in the middle of the second song. That doesn't stop the five Toxins, who are bent on making another audience their own.

"It's the fair, and you can buy everything on a stick," says Jeremy James, the group's frontman and baritone, who looks more like a matinee idol -- or the late John F. Kennedy Jr. -- than he does an entertainer who can turn a Mary Poppins song into rap. "You can buy a Twinkie on a stick," says Michelle Mailhot-Valines, Toxic's scat-singing soprano. "So we're offering Toxic Audio on a stick," says René Ruiz, the deadpan bass, who holds up a Toxic CD attached to a Pop- sicle stick. "Now you can listen and walk at the same time."

The group had to look beyond its own inner circle early last year when, on the eve of a projected New York showcase, Jeremy James was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that turned up in his abdomen. While he went through 10 rounds of chemotherapy and Shalisa coped with their three children (now 9, 5 and 4), Toxic went on performing with other singers standing in for him. Clearly, the group members felt the blow. But it's typical of their relentless good spirits not to dwell on it. Those who saw the group's regular gigs at Disney's Pleasure Island Jazz Club or on any number of other stages might never have known one of the original group was missing.

"My success story gives hope to anybody going through it," Jeremy James says now. "I was on a million prayer lists at a million churches. To be a source of hope is the ultimate give-back." Now he says he feels great. Onstage and off, he looks as if he means it. The ultimate test was 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road,' he says of the Beatles cover, in which he covers what seems like a couple of miles onstage. "I knew when I could do that again, I was good." James' recovery gave the Toxins their chance to go for New York this year the way they intended to in 2003.

The January showcase gave them the kind of exposure they craved. They followed the Duchess of York as guests on one radio program, and sang the weather report on TV. Invited to sing at a glitzy party, they wound up making a big impression. "Everybody was saying, 'I never heard this before,' " Sperrazza says. "It blew my mind." Now the Toxins are getting ready for their move. But chances are, if only for a visit, Toxic Audio will be back. After all, Ruiz says, Toxic Audio has learned one thing from all its time on the road. "We've come to see the world," he says, "as a much smaller place." More

Posted by acapnews at March 16, 2004 8:52 AM


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