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May 19, 2004

Orlando Sentinel

Who are those folks in the rock-star clothes, with the long black coats and sultry corsets, the big metal snaps and rivets and chains? Why, it's the five members of Orlando's own Toxic Audio, dressed to kill for the big city, conquering new audiences eight times a week with their very own off-Broadway show -- and winners Sunday night of a 2004 Drama Desk Award for "unique theatrical experience."

The Drama Desk Awards, voted on by more than 140 theater critics, reporters and editors, were organized in 1955 to counter Broadway's Tony Awards by honoring Broadway and off-Broadway alike. Hometown fans will recognize the glorious harmonies and the goofy humor of Loudmouth, the Toxins' bid for fame and fortune just blocks from the glitter of Broadway. But anybody who has known the group since its start six years ago at the Orlando Fringe will be impressed by the glossy trappings -- and the gung-ho response -- at the New York show.

Reviews have been slow in coming at the height of the Broadway theater season, although early this month The New York Times' Lawrence Van Gelder called Loudmouth "an amiable evening of song." On ameri cantheaterweb.com, critic Andy Propst described the virtuosity of the Toxins' vocalizations as "nothing short of extraordinary."

On one recent Monday night, the slowest theater night of the week, Toxic draws a healthy crowd of 100 or more, at $50 a head, to the John Houseman Theatre on West 42nd Street. Most of the audience members are young -- teens, 20s and 30s -- but there is a good sprinkling of middle-aged people and oldsters, who quickly get into the spirit: After one elderly woman is called onstage for a mock-sentimental number, she obligingly pretends to weep. The younger folk go nuts. A row of very young women giggles and squeals all the way through, and one rocks so hard in her aging theater seat that the kneecaps behind her must suffer semi-permanent damage.

That's become a typical response for the Toxins, who have been winning young fans for years, especially the kind who boast on Toxic's Web site of getting close enough to touch Paul Sperrazza or Jeremy James in the flesh. And the Goth-like rock-video costumes, flashy Broadway-style lighting and two-level scaffolding set certainly should make the group's younger fans feel right at home. Those new trappings never get in the way of Toxic's music, a collection of styles from standards to New Age to rap to rock classics, all created with nothing but five voices, a set of microphones and the wizardry of the sixth member of the group, sound man John A. Valines III.

Like all Toxic shows, Loudmouth slides from one style to the next, and there's something for everyone: If you're too old to appreciate "Bring Me to Life," Shalisa James' version of the Evanescence Top-40 hit, you'll probably adore Michelle Mailhot-Valines' beautiful "Autumn Leaves" or Jeremy James' riotous "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" Director René Ruiz, Toxic's bass, has taken advantage of the Houseman's large stage by sending the group up and down the scaffolding and scampering up the aisles. Beyond that, though, Loudmouth is pretty much the same show the group performed at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in March -- funny, exhilarating and sweet on the ears.

The Toxins still try to hype up their singing with a few too many gimmicks. Shalisa James' rendition of Carole King's "It's Too Late," straightforward and lovely, doesn't benefit from the candle-laden mock-funeral going on at the same time. Jeremy James' impressive improv-rap number has been interlaced with the group's version of the Beatles' "Paperback Writer," and the latter arrangement, which may be Toxic's weakest, doesn't help the former. And is it heretical to say that some of the baser sound effects -- the retching and the belching -- would be better off out in the street? Still, most of the gimmicks are hilarious -- Sperrazza singing "Dream a Little Dream Of Me" as if he's a speeded-up, slowed-down or skipping record on a turntable, Ruiz making the most of his four syllables in the audience favorite "Mahna Mahna," Sperrazza miming his way ridiculously through the lyrics of "The Rose." And the singing is just plain gorgeous.

Posted by acapnews at May 19, 2004 8:17 AM


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