Their clothes, designed by David Brooks, make them look like the we-mean-business staff at a post-modern bordello. They do three or four numbers requiring audience participation, which -- I don't know about you -- sets my teeth on edge. Their second routine is built on unappealing sounds like coughing up phlegm. Later, they do one or those turns where four of them pretend to be annoyed by the shenanigans of a fifth. That's such an old conceit it's bearded. Occasionally a smugness creeps into their demeanor; so does a hipper-than-thou attitude that -- I don't know about you -- sets my teeth on more precarious edge.
Nevertheless, they are so talented you want to cheer them on. It's more than that. Their belief -- and subsequent demonstration -- that there's no sound the human voice can't make is winning. Because they're so musical, are so enthralled with harmony and rhythm, and are doing something about it, they're using this slick offering to swell the annals of singers pushing vocal-expression boundaries. In that way, they're the latest in a list of seminal singers that includes, chronologically, Louis Armstrong, Cab Callaway, Bing Crosby, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Lambert Hendriks and Ross, and Manhattan Transfer. Where their predecessors have led them, they have followed and are now running forward with the baton. They're experimenting in sound, and the experiments are successful.
Their names are Rene Ruiz, Paul Sperrazza, Shalisa James, Jeremy James, and Michelle Mailhot-Valines, and they are true singing fools. Ruiz, the spark plug who conceived and directed the high-decibel entertainment, may be the most talented, because, well, he conceived and directed the extremely theatrical show. He's the one who -- warbling plenty himself -- keeps the quintet hopping and popping all over Peter R. Feuchtwanger's scaffolding and under his dizzying and very effective lights. Ruiz realizes that just having the a capella group chant for 85 minutes could be repetitious. So he's also divvied the show into segments highlighting options the voice has to make itself known. The five examine the possibilities of echo; rap; scatting; mimicry; and language, local and foreign.
Perhaps the most versatile Toxic Audio toxin is skinny Paul Sperrazza, who wears what looks like a Dorothy Hamill wedge on backwards. The guy can imitate any sound he's ever heard, has a body so limber that, when impersonating moon-walking icon Michael Jackson, he's more Michael Jackson than the original. Sperrazza knows how to play the audience and will even do a back flip if he thinks that might earn a bit of extra applause. He doesn't care about the phrases he's singing as much as the sounds he's making, which means his lead vocal on "Stand By Me" registers only in the ear and not in the heart.
That's true of all of them. Michelle Mailhot-Valines carries the opener, "Voices Carry," wherein the evening's objective is stated. She also gets to sing "Autumn Leaves" in a handful of languages. It's only one of the project's tours de force, and it's a strong one, as long as meaning isn't looked for there either. Shalisa James and Jeremy James both keep the dynamism flowing when the group indulges in different approaches to, among others, "The Rose," "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?," "Too Late Baby," and -- with an audience member pressed into service -- a series of sitcom themes. In a gimmick constructed around The Beatles's "Paperback Writer" Jeremy James improvises a sort-of hip-hop anthem. Shalisa James shows off her voice on a couple tunes as well, although I didn't understand anything she blared. For all this she and Michelle Mailhot-Valines have done the musical direction and arrangements.
Toxic Audio's closer is "Turn the Beat Around," which isn't intended simply as a cover of the Vicki Sue Robinson blockbuster. The dance-floor rouser might as well be the group credo. The team, helped immensely by sound designer and technical director John A. Valines III, turns the beat around. They turn it upside down. They make vocal percussion of it. They push it through a mike until it's very like a new note. Doing all this, they've got to go far stirring up the airwaves -- perhaps proving it pays to be a loudmouth.