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July 15, 2004


Poughkeepsie Journal, NY

Most people, except for the congenitally tone deaf, can carry a tune when accompanied by a musical instrument. A cappella singing, however, is another skill entirely. The ability to stay on pitch while vibrating your vocal cords from one note to another without benefit of accompaniment is something most of us are brave enough to try only in the shower.

Toxic Audio, an a cappella singing group that blows the roof off the John Houseman Theatre with its verbal pyrotechnics, is not only brave, but brash and breathtakingly aggressive, presenting a repertoire of songs that runs from the Beatles' ''Paperback Writer'' to Stoller and Leiber's ''Stand By Me'' to Gloria Estefan's ''Turn the Beat Around'' to a jazzed-up version of Johnny Mercer's ''Autumn Leaves,'' all without benefit of instruments to keep them properly affixed to the musical staff. Using only their voices to create sounds which simulate snares, cymbals, maracas, wooden blocks, horns and an orchestra, five talented vocal musicians have created their eponymous show, ''Toxic Audio,'' that is best described as the verbal equivalent of that percussive dance sensation, ''Stomp.''

The first a cappella singers I ever heard were back in 1974 when I went to a concert of the astonishing Swingle Singers, a classy group whose repertoire consisted primarily of Bach and pop songs. A decade later, the British group, the King's Singers, consisting of two bass-baritones, two tenors and two countertenors, took a cappella singing to new levels of precision and have played in sold-out concerts all over the world.

And now there's Toxic Audio. The members opened their show with slides of instruction for the audience: ''Howl like a wolf, make a sound like a champagne cork popping and a horse galloping.'' An admonition follows: ''With your voice only.'' The group's opening song, ''Voices Carry,'' is an eight-minute sparkling display of Toxic Audio's arsenal of vocal acrobatic sounds as well as their close harmonies that rival that of the Everly Brothers and Queen.

A two-level scaffolded set helps the group fill the stage, but the theater is still small enough to allow for audience participation. Jeremy James, Toxic Audio's improv expert, walks through the audience collecting 20 unrelated words which he then incorporates into an ingenious rap song that even P. Diddy would admire. His wife Shalisa, a professional jingle singer, is referred to as the group's Lyric Queen because she can ''sing the exact words to every song ever written faster than a speeding bullet.''

But it's the adorable Paul Sperrazza, Toxic Audio's ''baby,'' that starts you pondering what sort of exercises he must do to develop his vocal talent -- he can spit out rhythms faster than that same speeding bullet. Tossing his black, silky hair out of his eyes, he chews the microphone and blurts out tongue-twisting syllables that, if you close your eyes, sound suspiciously like a drum solo.

Michelle Mailhot-Valines is the group's scat specialist and a qualified successor to the great Ella. The final member is Rene Ruiz, a deep, deep bass who founded Toxic Audio in 1998. Their first appearance was in a storefront at the Orlando International Fringe Festival, where they were spotted by Disney executives. And now here they are performing on New York's prestigious Theatre Row.

Posted by acapnews at July 15, 2004 11:27 AM


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