It was a joyous homecoming for Telly Leung and his trio of musicians when they made their debut at The Cabaret this past weekend. Though based in New York, Leung has a lengthy history in Central Indiana because his husband, Jimmy Babcock, is a native Hoosier and former Indianapolis resident. So, for the past 17 years, he and Leung have gone back and forth. I saw the 9:30 p.m. show on Saturday, the last of three shows in the two-day run. Having interviewed (here) the personable Leung by Zoom a few weeks ago, I looked forward to seeing his show with great anticipation and, in the end, was not disappointed.
I have always had a special interest in Leung and his career because like me, he is gay and a person of color. Those two important factors, which are part of his identity, inform his work and, in particular, this show, during which he shared details about his Chinese-American background, marriage and successful career. A consummate storyteller, Leung matched the songs on his eclectic setlist with witty and clever banter that was as fascinating as it was engaging. With a gregarious energy and magnetic stage persona, he did so with an openness and authenticity set him apart from the many cabaret artists I have seen over the decades as a reviewer.
Making the performance even more special was the fact The Cabaret show marked the first time Leung and his trio had played together in 20 months. Adding to the show’s high caliber was the virtuosity of his players, including longtime music director Gary Adler on piano, Steve Gilweski on bass, and Joe Choroszewski on drums. All of these musicians have extensive experience performing in the pits of Broadway and it showed. Together, the artists operated like a well-tuned engine.
There were so many highlights in Leung’s fast-paced show that it’s hard to choose, but moments I found compelling included his inspiring story that began with his opening number “Back in Business” and “New York State of Mind” about his parents who both, separately and prior to meeting, swam seven miles from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong to escape communism. They met there later, fell in love and then moved to New York, where Telly was born, and then Brooklyn, where he grew up. In light of ongoing anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes, it was a very energizing testament to the strength and courage of his immigrant parents, who went to such lengths to ensure their child would receive an education and succeed. And look what happened.
After so many years of seeing shows featuring closeted gay performers changing pronouns in songs, it is still so refreshing to witness an artist who is transparent about his sexuality. In this instance, Leung’s story about his relationship with his spouse Jimmy and their eventual marriage, followed by his renditions of “Married/We Can Make It,” “Getting Married Today” from “Company,” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” were a pure delight
I recently saw “Aladdin” on Broadway, in which Leung made his star turn in the titular role from 2017 to 2019. So, it was quite a treat to hear him pay tribute to the musical with the song “A Whole New World,” which Aladdin sings for his love interest Princess Jasmine when he takes her for a ride on his magic carpet. Leung sang the song in multiple languages that included everything from Korean to Italian to Swedish.
It’s worth noting the show also had a very special opening act, the performances of two students who take cabaret classes at Ball State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, which partners with The Cabaret. Both young artists displayed considerable acting and singing chops, along with dazzling stage presence that, given the right circumstances and breaks, will take them far in the entertainment world. The sultry Hannah Whitley sang “I Used To Be Color Blind” and the effervescent Christina Youngblood belted a mashup of “I Turned the Corner/Another Hundred People/Not for the Life of Me/Gimme Gimme.” As managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret, an incubator for emerging cabaret artists, I am already predisposed to advocating for young aspiring artists. It was very easy for me to embrace the polished performances of these two young women, who were poised beyond their years.
As for Leung, he closed with “I Am What I Am/I Have Nothing,” a medley of what he said were two of his favorite loves, Broadway and Whitney Houston. His distinctive tenor voice is remarkable for its range, complexity and texture and the song choice made an invigorating statement that conveyed his parents’ tenacity and courage. It was a triumphant ending to an entertaining evening of empowerment that will not soon be forgotten.
For tickets and information about remaining shows in The Cabaret 2021 season, visit thecabaret.org.