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June 3, 2004


Associated Press

Off-Broadway's new a cappella revue with the cryptic title, "Toxic Audio in Loudmouth," may not appeal to all tastes, but its unusual brand of entertainment offers something always welcome in musical theater originality. The production, at the John Houseman Theater, involves little more than five singers with microphones. Despite the show's apparent simplicity, it won a Drama Desk award last month for best unique theatrical experience.

Each of the vocalists in Toxic Audio as the Florida-based group has been known since 1998 display a distinctive, complementary flare in covering a mix of pop, jazz and original material. Performing entirely without instruments, the retro-clad musicians (think big hair and zipper pockets) employ more than just their voices to keep the audience engaged. Throughout the show, they dip into the bags of a couple of enduring standbys physical comedy and audience participation.

Holding down the low end is the group's founder and director, Rene Ruiz, who lays a solid foundation of thumping and swinging bass lines. Musical arrangements are handled by the group's two female singers, Shalisa James and Michelle Mailhot-Valines, both competent balladeers. Mailhot-Valines' imaginative, multilingual version of "Autumn Leaves" is one of the clear highlights of the 90-minute program. Jeremy James' niche seems to be geared toward comic presence, though the baritone does provide subtle, fluid accompaniment. His improvised rap number, while daring, falls a bit flat.

The ensemble's most versatile and engrossing performer is Paul Sperrazza, whose bodily contortions and facial expressions reveal a captivating ability in clowning. He also flaunts slick dance steps and impressive vocal range in his parody of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Audience members periodically are called up on stage to participate in numbers. A video screen displays instructions during a pre-performance vocal excercise and flashes ironic definitions from the dictionary during the show.

Despite all its originality and enthusiasm, "Toxic Audio in Loudmouth" probably won't win over many people who weren't already inclined to listen to an a cappella performance. Many of the pseudo-instrumental effects the singers generate (bass, drums and guitar, to name a few) are enhanced or made possible by amplification in a sort of barbershop quintet meets human beat box. The pumped-up volume unfortunately sacrifices much of the intimacy a small theater can offer and may leave theatergoers wondering if the curious title refers to the booming speakers. The harmonic and rhythmic sophistication of the group shines through in some songs but becomes temporarily obscured in other, more jingly numbers. One of the funnier bits is an 'N Sync parody entitled "God Must Have Spent a Little Less Time." But the boy band sketch is exemplary of much of the show's silly humor suitable for all audiences, but not necessarily appealing to all.

Posted by acapnews at June 3, 2004 10:47 PM


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