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September 24, 2007

Toxic Audio's sound will surprise you


Their name suggests an ear-shattering heavy metal or grunge band. Their performance suggests anything but. Toxic Audio, an a cappella quintet that opens a five-day run Sunday at the Atlantic City Hilton, isn't your garden variety street-corner doo-wop group harmonizing on hits from the 1950s.

Instead, they take the human voice where few groups have gone before, managing to sound like musical instruments and accompanying themselves on familiar songs like the Beatles' "Paperback Writer," Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," Vicki Sue Robinson's "Turn the Beat Around" and the Johnny Mercer standard "Autumn Leaves." Then they wrap many of the songs around scripted and ad-libbed comedy.

If the harmonizing group Manhattan Transfer merged with the off-Broadway musical "Stomp," the result would be closest to Toxic Audio. "We're a theater piece without a story," says Rene Ruiz, who created the group in Orlando, Fla., nearly a decade ago to participate in a fringe festival. It paid off; the group won a 2004 Drama Desk Award for best unique theater experience.

Ruiz says it's difficult for people to describe the show to their friends, but that actually works in Toxic Audio's favor when it comes to attracting an audience. "Word of Mouth" is more than just the title of their latest album; it's turned out to be their best marketing tool. "When people go home after [the show], it's hard for them to describe what we do, so all they can say is that they saw a show where we were singing and making all kinds of noises, but they can't make the noises themselves," Ruiz says. "So the only way for them to get someone to understand the show is to bring them to the show. We see many of the same faces at the end of a run that we did at the beginning, because people are coming back with their friends."

Although there's not a single musical instrument in the show, and no recorded tracks or samples are used, Toxic Audio relies on a variety of complex amplifiers, mixers and processors to bring its sounds from the stage to the audience. The group's non-performing sixth member, technical director John Valines, joined the group six years ago. In command of sound and lighting, he needs to be quick at the switch when the singers move between music and comedy. "We had already been working for about four years when we picked up [Valines]," Ruiz says during a phone call from his home in Orlando. "He was the first person who got what we did, probably because his background is theater and comedy."

That artistic diversity is typical. Some members have strong theater backgrounds, while others lean more to the musical side. "That's why the collaboration works so well," says Ruiz, who was directing shows in Orlando when he created Toxic Audio. "When one of us comes up with an idea, we bring it to the table, and then we all start working on it."

Ruiz, who often uses two microphones to create the bass and beat-box sounds in the show, admits the name might scare away some people. "I picked the name because we needed to be called something when we began working the fringe festivals," he explains. "But we're not heavy metal or scary or anything like that. We're a show for all ages."

Toxic Audio performs at the Atlantic City Hilton at 7 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Monday and 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Tickets are $25, available through Ticketmaster.

Posted by acapnews at September 24, 2007 10:13 PM


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