Telly Leung, who many would recognize as a Dalton Academy Warbler from FOX's GLEE, is a bona fide Broadway talent. He debuted on Broadway in the 2002 revival of Flower Drum Song, appeared in the 2005 revival of Pacific Overtures, originated the role of Boq in the Chicago company of Wicked, and he spent some time in Rent on Broadway too. In 2011, He earned positive notices and word of mouth for his performance in the revival of Stephan Schwartz's Godspell at Circle in the Square Theatre. Leung channels his passion into the performances on his debut solo CD I'll Cover You, which features some real showstopping delights and some disappointing duds.
Like many, Leung found the inspiration to become a performer in Carol Channing. He recalls seeing her in a Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! when he was a teenager, and her rendition of "Before the Parade Passes By" cemented his desire to pursue theater. In many ways, his debut solo album is a celebration of that inspiration, especially when he belts "Before the Parade Passes By" with tangible conviction and motivation. He mentions that his jazzy approach, which I greatly appreciate, to the album was to allow listeners to hear these songs in a fresh light while giving him the opportunity to strip these songs down to their core and make them personal to himself. Unfortunately, that approach doesn't work all the time.
Allow me to begin with the great. The songs plucked from musicals are this disc's greatest treasures. As already mentioned, Leung's rendition of "Before the Parade Passes By" truly resonates with the listener. His tenor instrument expresses the carpe diem sentimentality of the song. He starts with soft, plaintive vocals and lets the piece grow into a lively anthem, making it the best track on the recording. Likewise, on "I'll Cover You" from Rent, he creates a nice solo piece out of a well-known duet. His version persuades listeners to believe in the beauty of true love. And his sweetly crooned cover of Stephen Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" captures the piece's original purpose, warning us to be wary of how we mold the youths we encounter, while maintaining the song's tuneful nature.
Leung sings strong renditions of Simon and Gafunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now," and Katy Perry's "Firework." Of the three, his best work is on his slowed down version of "Firework," retaining the emotionality of the original, while presenting the song in a more quietly intimate fashion.
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But his Latin-infused version of Madonna's "Pappa Don't Preach," a concept that sounds good in principal, doesn't work. He explained to Mark Kennedy at Boston.com that this song was an homage to growing up as an '80s kid, but his biggest misstep is not to repurpose the lyrics to fit himself. The number first comes across as misguided when he sings that he has always been Daddy's little girl. As an openly gay male, the biggest disservice to his approach is that he missed the opportunity repackage the song as a powerful gay right's anthem, using the context of "I'm gonna keep my baby" as a battle cry against intolerance and homophobia. Also, the passing reference to "Las Isla Bonita" feels forced.
Other problems I encountered when listening to the album include Leung's uniquely nasal timbre. The Broadway nasal approach can be a little off putting to me. So, like sipping wine, Leung's voice does take getting used to. Likewise, there are tracks that I cannot make a personal connection with, even with repeated listens. Songs like his version of Stevie Wonders' "Knocks Me Off My Feet," his rendition of Nat King Cole's "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Outta My Life," and his take on The Beatles' "In My Life" just come across as bland jazz standards. They lack that oomph and pizzazz that invites listeners into the song, letting the melodies and lyrics rattle in their consciousness and spirit.
Overall, Leung's I'll Cover You works as an intriguing mélange of his favorite tunes from both the stage and radio worlds. To ignore the flaws would be a disservice to an artist who clearly exposes listeners to his integrity and capability for growth. After all, when Telly Leung gets it right on I'll Cover You, it's very right.