By Mark A. Newman
Full disclosure: I’m already a fan of this young Broadway stalwart and have been since I first saw him in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures in 2004. So I knew his solo album was on the horizon and I was eagerly anticipating it. The problem with some of these recordings by Broadway favorites is simply that they don’t sound like they did when you saw them in that show that time. Sometimes it’s disappointing (Brian Stokes Mitchell). But sometimes it’s a revelation.
Thankfully, Telly Leung’s “I’ll Cover You,” is indeed a revelation. Anybody who saw Leung in the recent revival of Godspell can attest to his ability to rattle the rafters with one lung tied behind his back. However, on this collection he is accompanied by a jazz combo and he tends to – as so many performers say – “bring it down a notch.” But this notch is definitely Leung’s musical sweet spot.
I’m not saying that the belting – one of Leung’s trademarks – is not present, but it’s not overdone. After all, he’s not on stage selling a scene, he’s in your ear buds selling a song. And it’s well worth the price.
The 13 tunes on the disc is an eclectic treasure trove. There are timeworn standards from the second half of the last century (“In My Life,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “I Can See Clearly Now”) as well Broadway covers one of the most effective of which is “I’ll Cover You” from RENT, a show where Leung played the tragic role of Angel. In the show the song is presented as a rollicking duet between Angel and his new love Collins during the first act. However, in the second act the song is a reprise sung by a mourning Collins at Angel’s memorial. [Oops, spoiler alert.] Leung has opted to take a more melancholy approach. However, instead of being mournful (if you had a heart, your eyes were not dry during the second act reprise in RENT), it has the feel of a quiet celebration of a devoted romance that has either lasted through the ages or is just beginning.
The collection starts off with a rollicking rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” that truly soars and Leung’s vocal acrobatics are perfectly matched to a tune that celebrates being in crazy love. It is an ideal prelude to what’s to come. His take on the Beatles’ “In My Life” is my favorite rendition since Johnny Cash recorded it late in his career. It’s also my favorite Beatles tune of all time and Leung’s thoughtful interpretation is one of the collection’s many aural pleasures.
His take on “Before the Parade Passes By” puts him in the company of several male singers who’ve adopted this song as of late (it’s even Norm Lewis’ favorite audition song). From the gentle rumbling of the snare drum the arrangement has a driving feel and Leung rejoices and makes the most of this song about being determined not to miss any opportunities that may present themselves. The same is true with oft-recorded “Children Will Listen,” a song that feels like it has even more meaning for the singer due to his work with youngsters. Leung really means what he sings here.
A couple of the tunes are far from typical Broadway vocalist fodder – Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” and Katy Perry’s “Firework” – both of which come off remarkably well and devoid of camp. One minor quibble was keeping the lyric in “Papa” in its original context, specifically: “’cause I was always your little girl.” Makes you wonder who he’s singing it to. Then again if he was going for a gender-neutral feel then, well, my hat’s off to him. A less popular song from the pop canon is The Indigo Girls’ “Galileo,” a song I’ve never heard before but was immediately charmed by.
I would be remiss if I did not commend the arrangements by Gary Adler and Mary Ann McSweeney. So many vocalists’ CDs are fairly staid affairs but the use of a small string section as well as a jazz trio (piano, bass, drums) make this a collection that will not gather dust on a collector’s shelf – it begs to be listened to. The instrumentation is ideal accompaniment for Leung’s clean tenor and provides enough variety that no two songs sound alike.
The collection takes the listener on a jazzy journey through a variety of styles and tunes. Aside from the aforementioned numbers, there are also tracks by James Taylor, Nat King Cole, and Holly Cole. But the disc’s coda is a live track of Whitney Houston’s “I Believe in You and Me.” You can feel the energy of the live audience responding to the panache that Leung brings to a live performance (there’s even a “Whoop!” in there by an enthused audience member). It’s a great finale to an immensely likable disc and a tribute to the late Whitney Houston that she would undoubtedly adore.