When this reviewer first encountered “The Lion,” singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer’s gripping and compelling stage play with music several years ago, I was stunned into silence by the autobiographical piece’s emotion, honesty and intimacy, especially since Scheuer was performing his own deeply personal story. I was impressed not only by the caliber of the music that the 30-something musician had composed for his story, but how the play captured the unexpectedly dramatic turns and twists of the young man’s life.
After two successful runs in New York and a run in London, Scheuer is now touring the country with “The Lion,” which has settled into New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre for a run that opened on January 13 and continues through February 7 on the Theatre’s Stage II. I am pleased to report that on my third viewing on January 14, after having seen it twice over a year’s time in New York, “The Lion” remains as fresh and touching as it has ever been.
From the moment he enters the set, created by set designer Neil Patel to suggest an early-20th century music parlor complete with radiator and scruffy walls, Scheuer, with a slight hesitation to his walk and his blond mane of hair tumbling as he gradually raises his face toward the audience and picks up a guitar, wins over the audience with his boyish good looks and a quietly outgoing personality. But there’s something in that personality that he conveys almost immediately that hints at a great deal of reflection and a sense of chastisement, as if this man has learned a lot about life the hard way and paid attention to those lessons. As the evening progresses, we discover that indeed he has.
It is his father, a brilliant mathematician who was also an excellent musician, who is “the lion” of the title. He was responsible for introducing his worshipful son to music by giving him a toy banjo made out of a cookie tin and played alongside Benjamin and his two younger brothers in their early years. He even referred to his sons as his cubs. As young Ben’s interest in music develops, the relationship between father and son becomes sometimes contentious, as Ben’s academic performance takes second place to his guitar.
A tragic incident leaves a barely teenage Ben feeling guilty and confused and results in the family’s relocation from New York to England, where he eagerly anticipates graduation and his 18th birthday so he can head back to the City and pursue his first love—music. As a playwright, Scheuer doesn’t share too much about his early struggles on the New York music scene, and you know there were bound to be some since this was New York, though at one point we learn that he must frequently perform at the popular and iconic New York club, CBGB’s.
On stage, there are six guitars scattered around this semblance of a room, each one part of a personal recollection, whether it be about how he was given and eventually lost his father’s acoustic guitar or how he frequently blasted his electric guitar while in boarding school in England. Sadly, we don’t get to see that first childhood banjo, however, but he hints that it may be around someplace in his or his family’s possessions. As Scheuer continues his story, he guides us through his first significant relationship with a woman who is willing to confront him about the baggage he is carrying around and his subsequent fall into a period of increasing isolation as he can’t seem to figure out exactly what he wants from life. A serious and rare health emergency forces him to re-evaluate his life and finally open himself to his family and friends, while acknowledging the unresolved issues that continue to plague him.
Scheuer intersperses his story with songs he composed himself, more often than not inspired by the situations he is describing. He sings with a pleasant, clear and powerful voice that genuinely conveys the joy he feels while performing. His music is melodic and catchy, matched by vivid, descriptive lyrics that occasionally poke fun at the singer’s psychological state at that particular point in his story.
It helps too that Scheuer is willing to admit to his own shortcomings as he tells his tale, as taking responsibility for his actions and sharing some of his own foolishness and missteps further endears him to the audience.
He has had essential help from director Sean Daniels over the years in finessing his story and turning it into a legitimately dramatic and authentic piece of theater that in its 70-minute length never falters or stalls. “The Lion” remains progressively engrossing and, even on this third viewing, still manages to surprise and move.
The show fits neatly into Stage II’s proscenium space, with Ben Stanton’s lighting providing atmospheric coloration and ambience throughout. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design was especially strong and balanced on the night I caught the show, which enabled Scheuer’s singing to soar unobstructed over his guitar.
There’s a vulnerable confidence in Scheuer’s stage presence that allows his musical memoir to resonate through an audience that easily takes to his tale about his difficulties growing up, his struggle to claim his music and his identity and his discovery of the redemptive power of familial love. “The Lion” only gets better as Scheuer tours, remaining rewarding and heartfelt.
For information and tickets, contact the Long Wharf Theatre’s box office at 203.787.4282 or 800.782.8497, or visit the theater’s website at www.longwharf.org.