By Ron Fassler
On his Monday night off from playing the title role in Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre on West 42nd Street, Telly Leung travelled two blocks north to Birdland on 44th Street, and performed a wonderful one-night only show titled “Sing Happy.” In a sense, a musical autobiography, Leung eschewed popular Broadway in favor of the music he grew up on and was influenced by, telling stories along the way about his life and career. A native New Yorker, his mix of the personal and the professional was a lovely blend, that made for a warm and cozy evening—a perfect fit for a cold winter night in Manhattan.
With a voice that recalls Neil Sedaka in his prime, Leung’s strong tenor is uniquely suited to both Broadway and pop, and his arrangements under the direction of his longtime musical director Gary Adler were superb. Leung, a veteran of such shows as Allegiance, In Transit, Godspell, Rent and the TV series Glee, possesses a charming stage presence, and was well served by his show’s director, Alan Muroka, who aided in keeping the flow at an even pace, with strongly effective patter that was held to a minimum. In a touching tribute to a recently departed friend, Leung told a beautiful story about their relationship, followed by a wrenching ballad, “Learn to Live Without You.” Taking on songs that are mostly connected with female artists like Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (also recorded by Donna Summer) and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” were not easy to make his own, but Leung succeeded admirably.
Even with the show titled “Sing Happy,” a John Kander and Fred Ebb number from their very first Broadway musical, the Liza Minnelli vehicle Flora the Red Menace, the evening only consisted of two other Broadway songs, sung as one in a jazzy rendition: Stephen Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby,” intertwined with Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” It proved a genuine crowd pleaser. My favorite though might have been a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” which only showed off further the varied musical styles Leung channeled throughout. Ably backed by Gary Adler at the piano, Leung was also joined onstage by Mary Ann McSweeney on bass, Michael Croiter on drums, Brian Koonin on guitar, and J.J. Johnson on violin/viola/flute.
Portraying a Disney hero eight times a week, led to smart choice for a finale: Alan Menken and David Zippel’s “Go the Distance,” which was written for the 1997 animated feature film Hercules. In some ways, Leung is a Disney hero come to life: exuding goodness, confidence and a love of humanity, by way of his personal story, which he was kind enough to share with us at Birdland. Here’s hoping he returns soon, for as much as the musical theatre is lucky to have him, the cabaret world needs a bit more of singer-stylists with the imagination, talents and flair of Telly Leung.