Entertainment » Theatre

Telly Leung Goes to 'Extreme'

by Brian Scott  Lipton
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jan 30, 2015

Over the past dozen years, Telly Leung has proven his expertise and versatility as a musical performer, in such Broadway shows as "Rent," "Pacific Overtures," and "Godspell," on television's "Glee," and in concerts in such celebrated venues as 54 Below.

However, starting on February 3, Leung will show off his dramatic chops in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's "The World of Extreme Happiness" at Manhattan Theater Club's City Center -Stage 1. He plays Pete, the younger brother of Sunny, a female Chinese factory worker who is thrust into the role of a company spokeswoman at a sham PR event. "I am so thrilled to get an opportunity to delve into a play," says Leung. "When you do one thing very well - and my bread and butter is singing for my supper, that's all people think you can do. I always want to show people I am capable of doing other things. And to work at MTC is a dream come true, since they've long been part of what I call my institutional theater bucket list."

Leung is also excited to be part of this particular production, which he says has been inspired by the mass suicides by China's long-suffering industrial workers. "What's really great is the play is about China now. So much Asian theater just focuses on the past," he notes. "Here, what Frances is showing us is a China that is growing so fast economically that it's tearing at its own skin. It's like a teenager whose growth spurts are hard to contain. A lot happens in this play in 90 minutes, which is really appropriate for a work about such a fast-moving country."

While the openly gay actor will assay multiple roles in the show, his primary part is Pete, to whom he relates in many ways. "His sister takes this factory job because all she wants is to be able to send money home to him so he can get an education. All Pete really wants to do is go to opera school and play the Monkey King. Like every boy in America wants to play Superman, young Chinese boys want the Monkey King. I get it. As a young Chinese-American, I wanted to be both Superman and the Monkey King."

In fact, as a first generation American born to Chinese immigrants, Leung's heritage really informs his take on the play. "I understand this need for people everywhere to want to achieve the 'American Dream,' and how sometimes it just doesn't happen," he says. "As I read this play, I realized how grateful I am for our American protections, such as unions and other employment forums."

Those who fear they won't hear Leung's beautiful singing for a long time have nothing to worry about. On March 30, he brings "Seasons of Broadway," a touring musical act he performs in and helped create, to BB Kings on 42nd Street. "It's this show where I perform with Adam Pascal, Mandy Gonzalez, and Marcus Paul James, which means it's basically an opportunity to showcase my very talented friends who love to sing together, and with whom I have a deep connection that you can't replace," he says.

"I love the four of us represent all of the colors of Great White Way - or let's call it the Great Rainbow Way from now on. And for this show, we'll have such guest stars as our friends and former co-stars as Anthony Rapp and Lindsay Mendez. And yes, we're going to sing all the hits people expect from show like 'Rent' and 'Aida.' We give the people what they want."

In addition, there seems to a very strong chance that Leung will be back on Broadway later this year in the musical "Allegiance," in which he originally starred at the Old Globe Theater. The much-anticipated show concerns a Japanese-American family that was interned in a California camp during World War II. Leung plays Sam, the younger version of a character played by "Star Trek" star turned gay activist George Takei.

"I get people asking me about it often -- which is wonderful for a show that only ran six weeks. I have never been part of a project with such high expectations," he says. "I have to admit when they first approached me about doing it, I said 'are you sure you want to put on a musical about Japanese internment. Does it sing?' Fortunately, I was proven wrong. Audiences in San Diego were really touched by it, and plenty of people brought family members and friends back to see it. I feel like there is a demand for this kind of emotional show; audiences are yearning to feel, to be reminded of their own humanity."

He's also looking forward to reconnecting with Takei, who will be making his own sort of history when the show finally bows in New York. "Not only is George going to make his Broadway debut at age 77, he is going to get another chance to tell this story that is the root of who he is," says Leung. "I think one reason he is such a big LGBT advocate now is because he understood being treated differently, like a second-class citizen, so many years ago. He really felt that injustice so strongly."

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