Toxic Audio was born at the 1998 Orlando Fringe Festival when five theme park performers -- Michelle Mailhot, Shalisa James, Paul Sperrazza, Jeremy James, and René Ruiz -- banded together to sing in an abandoned downtown storefront. The show was a huge hit, and in the years since the quintet (along with technical director John Valines, their unsung sixth member) has performed their award-winning a cappella in New York, Las Vegas, and around the world. Luckily for Orlando, they've come full circle this season, returning to the Fringe with Voice Activated, a slick and satisfying selection of songs in the Silver venue.
Toxic's signature is to put their own unique instrument-free spin on show tune standards and pop hits. Following a pre-show slideshow of musical trivia, the show kicks off with a trippy medley of tunes from The Sound of Music, transformed with ghostly reverb into a scat soundscape. Next, "Do Re Mi" from the same show is used to illustrate the "Evolution of Harmony," from Gregorian chants and barbershop quartet through the Beach Boys and boy bands. More contemporary tunes make the mix too, like a swinging take on "I'm Bringing Sexy Back," and an intricate multi-track interpretation of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," created by layering loops of a single live voice.
Every arrangement is loaded with impressively complex overlapping rhythms and counterpoint harmonies. The numbers are also often peppered with humorous characters, like the lovelorn traveler desperate to be groped by a TSA agent and an ode to middle-aged digital dating derived from "Sixteen Going on Seventeen." The audience even gets into the act with a little improv: At the opening performance, producer Michael Marinaccio and former critic Elizabeth Maupin inspired an absurd cabaret number titled "Rhubarb Paradox."
That isn't to imply everything Toxic does is a gag. They give a gorgeous, gimmick-free rendition of "'Til There Was You," and a faithful version of Katy Perry's "Firework" gave me goosebumps. Other highlights include my second-favorite performance of "Mahna Mahna" (after the Muppets') and a sweet PG-edit of Avenue Q's "I Wish I Could Go Back to College."
Toxic is at their best when putting Broadway through their beautiful blender. And when Paul Sperrazza ("the human beat-box") plays his mouth-mounted drum kit, you can practically see the cymbals. The team is introducing new material into their repertoire, so the opening performance wasn't quite polished to perfection. A smart Seussian rap about text messaging needs a sharper punchline, the rock concert-level volume can be uncomfortably harsh in the front rows, and the show could be tightened by five minutes or so. And in an odd moment at the halfway point, the cast announces the retirement of their familiar name and logo, reintroducing themselves as "Vox Audio"; the "never before performed" songs they sing from their new CD are in a more aggressive urban style that isn't quite my cup of tea.
This is perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Voice Activated: Thanks to the gratuitous "mazel tovs" in the lyrics, "I've Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas has become the bane of every Jewish wedding I've been to in the last few years. Toxic Audio sounds so good that when they closed their show with that insipid earworm, I actually found myself enjoying it. Now that's talent.
Toxic Audio - Orlando, FL
Thursday 17 May; at 6 pm in the Silver
Sunday 20 May; at 12:45 pm in the Silver
Monday 21 May; at 6 pm in the Silver
Thursday 24 May; at 8 pm in the Silver
Saturday 26 May; at 9:30 pm in the Silver
Sunday 27 May; at noon in the Silver
Price: $11 + Fringe Button (good for entire Fringe)
Rating: Family Friendly