Review of The Lion at Long Wharf Theatre
Though you might not think it to look at him, slim, blonde, and boyish singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer has suffered, and of that suffering he has made a song cycle, or cabaret-style musical, called The Lion, which debuted at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014, and earned him the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, and is now at the Long Wharf Theatre.
On stage, it’s just Scheuer, several guitars (one electric, the rest acoustic), some chairs, and a kind of distressed-looking backdrop that could pass for a room in a worn recording-studio or a low-key folk nightclub. The story he has to tell runs the gamut from childhood inspiration—his father, a mathematician, played guitar and made young Ben a toy banjo from a cookie tin, a necktie, and rubber bands—to familial dysfunction, loss, young love found and lost, a very scary and unpleasant disease—Hodgkin Lymphoma—and, ultimately, personal redemption via music, particularly the guitar.
As such, the show is about the conditions of its own creation. All the songs and Scheuer’s between-song narrations contribute to the unfolding story of how Scheuer became the author and performer of The Lion. It’s a true story, but like all true stories, it has to be adapted to be made the stuff of art. We tend to believe there is some kind of real experience as the basis for the lyrics of most songs we hear—sometimes that connection between the singer and the song is made explicit, at other times there’s more detachment from what’s being told—but The Lion makes sense only as the story of Benjamin Scheuer, its narrator-protagonist. In that light, but for “Weather the Storm,” a song young Scheuer learns from his dad, and the only one here that could inspire a sing-along, it’s not filled with folk songs but rather the kind of first-person songs that tend to be sung by characters in musicals.
But these are also not the kind of catchy, hummable tunes one associates with musicals; the song of The Lion mostly have to have narrative force, and Scheuer is quite adept at finding a way to sing about upsetting experiences. The songs, though, are not just a bid for sympathy. Scheuer strives to make his personal experience exemplary of the kinds of things that can break up families, the kinds of things that go wrong with overly naïve love affairs, the kinds of things that can afflict our health with little warning, and, particularly, the guilt we feel about how we treated our parents and our ongoing resentment of how they treated us.
If that sounds like song-writing as therapy, it should, because at times that’s what listening to The Lion feels like. While listening, we can wonder where the story’s going—will “Ben” be cured of his illness, will he find true love, will his mom stop being so snippy, will he land a big recording contract and show everybody—but, as with any album of related songs you might care to think of, what we’re mainly doing is experiencing each song as its sung and played for us. The intimacy of a solo performer with a guitar has a certain inherent theatricality, and the songs—which are very well-structured—show the variety of Scheuer as singer/musician as well as the many shades of Ben, the guy who seems to keep groping at getting a handle on his life. Except that the songs are the handle the guy they’re about doesn’t quite get. Yet.
Ultimately, that’s what makes The Lion gripping: its candor. To quote a line from a Dylan song: “I know you’ve suffered much, but in this you are not so unique.” The slings and arrows of Ben’s life may be easily comparable to what many have endured, particularly those who write and sings the blues, to say nothing of those who favor tell-all memoirs, but what is unique is getting up night after night to sing that story for the edification of others. Particularly as the heart of the show has to stand in the uneasy space between the early warm and fuzzy evocation of Dad making that cookie-tin banjo and the effort to connect across time with “Dear Dad,” in a song that tries to assuage what can never really be laid to rest.
You have to respect Scheuer for trying, though, with what talents he has. He’s a better guitarist than singer and better singer than actor, but there’s dramatic interest in his ability to recall to mind versions of himself—or of Ben—that can seem quaint or touching or simply clueless. The line that The Lion walks is between the effort to make us share in the hurts and happiness felt by Ben, and, for Scheuer, to find some kind of transcendence by singing his heart out about himself, his dad, his siblings and mother, his old girlfriend, his illness, his music, each night. While not wise and witty about pop star life (and sexual identity) like a fictional musical memoir such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Lion, in its earnest bid for empathy, does approach hard-won insight about the long, strange trip that is life in general and the mystery of other people.
The show’s title comes from a song that asks “What makes a lion a lion?” One of those imponderables that can also be extended to the show itself. What makes The Lion The Lion? Is it the presence of Scheuer himself, or could his part be taken by someone else? If so, the songs transcend their maker; if not, then the show is really all about what it means to be Benjamin Scheuer.
Written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer
Directed by Sean Daniels
Scenic Designer: Neil Patel; Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton; Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg; Costume Consultant: Jennifer Caprio; Production Designer: Dom Ruggiero; Technical Supervisor: Mind the Gap; General Management: Maximum Entertainment
Long Wharf Theatre
January 6-February 7, 2016