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September 23, 2005

A Cappella with a Twist

Las Vegas Review Journal (NV):

Toxic Audio is a vocal quintet that marries jazz harmony, street corner doo-wop and the hip-hop school of vocal percussion. But don't be too quick to insert an adjective such as "seamless" or "natural" in front of the word "marriage." Take the time Michelle Mailhot-Valines, the group's serious jazz student, had an idea for an arrangement of "Autumn Leaves." She would sing in English and French and envisioned "a serious, beautiful ..."

"We took that and ran with it," interrupts Paul Sperrazza, the "human beat box" of the group, who says he specializes in "stupid human noises and backflips."

As seen onstage in the group's limited run at the Luxor, the idea morphed into Spike Jones-style musical slapstick. Signs held up by the others prompt Mailhot-Valines to translate the song into Korean, German, Spanish, Japanese and Tagalog."I was really mad for a good six months," the soprano recalls. "Paul and I got along famously the first three years," she says. "It was awful.""Michelle was a riot," Sperrazza agrees.

But Toxic Audio is now in its seventh year. And when the group released the first of its four albums, Mailhot-Valines thanked the others in the acknowledgments "for helping me laugh more."Despite the friction, group founder Rene Ruiz believes the group's "mix of all kinds of different worlds" is what makes it tick. Toxic Audio's stage show reflects some of its singers' backgrounds in improv comedy, while the song choices range from chestnuts such as "Route 66" to the Evanescence hit "Bring Me to Life."Ruiz, Mailhot-Valines and Sperrazza anchor the group, with the other two positions rotated in Las Vegas between Shalisa James and Emily Drennan, and between Jeremy James and Jeff Williams.

The singers' common bond is that most of them met while performing in the theme parks of Orlando, Fla. But Toxic Audio comes to Las Vegas with off-Broadway credentials."I was singing with the a cappella groups and we were a big hit with the audiences and tourists, but I was also doing theater on the side," Ruiz explains. "I would be talking to theater audiences afterward and I realized those theater audiences had never seen an a cappella group at a theme park before. They'd never heard anybody making music with just their voices."

His suspicions were confirmed when he did a stint in "Forever Plaid." "I didn't see them walking around Walt Disney World, but I saw them loving musical theater." Ruiz also realized the potential of the so-called "nonverbal theater" trend by taking in the Blue Man Group and De La Guarda, and shows such as "Blast" and "Stomp." The quintet's 80-minute show at the Luxor is heavy on antics such as pulling an audience member onstage to click a TV remote, spurring the group to deliver a barrage of TV themes.

The group considers sound technician John Valines (who is married to Michelle) to be an official sixth member. With his background in improv comedy, Valines is able to follow the group into unscripted territory and punch up the antics with sound effects. "People say, 'You do so much,' but you'd be surprised at how much I don't do," he says. The one rule of the group, Ruiz explains, is that the sound can be processed, "but it has to come out of these five voices to begin with." There are no prerecorded vocals, rhythm tracks or pitch-correcting machinery.

Luxor president Felix Rappaport caught the group's off-Broadway production "Toxic Audio in Loudmouth" when he was in New York to see former Las Vegas pianist Michael Cavanaugh in the Broadway musical "Movin' Out." The limited engagement is in part to see if a show with theme park credentials can survive on a Strip reveling in its Sin City, adult-playground notoriety. The Luxor's marketing team will have to determine if the fact that Toxic Audio is, as Ruiz notes, "very family friendly" should be treated as a dirty little secret or a welcome find for a neglected market. "We like to be marketed as hip and edgy (but) we are a lot of different things to a lot of different people," Ruiz says. But, just to make it clear, he adds, "You're not going to feel like it's a kid's show."

Posted by acapnews at September 23, 2005 9:50 PM