Also see Nancy's review of The Flick
From the time he was a small boy, music has been the love of Scheuer's life and it seems fitting that he chooses to tell his story through song. The Lion begins and ends with "Cookie-tin Banjo," a sweet, nostalgic piece about his father playing his old guitar and singing folk songs. Little Ben wanted to be able to play like him, so his father constructed the toy instrument, but, more importantly, gave him the gift of music. However, their relationship was not entirely harmonious as Ben's less than stellar academic prowess disappointed his mathematician father and the senior Scheuer was prone to volatile displays of anger. When his father suffered a brain aneurysm and died suddenly, 13-year old Ben was left alone with the unresolved tension that had existed between them.
Scheuer has a knack for writing songs that capture the joys of childhood fantasies (singing with his two younger brothers about the things they'll do when they're big), the anger and angst of his adolescent years (when he takes up the electric guitar), and the giddiness of finding first love in an unexpected place ("I'll Bet Loving You Will Be Easy"). New girlfriend Julia's enchantment with James Taylor turns Ben back to acoustic music and his father's old guitar, as well as nudging him toward emotional reconciliation with departed dad. Communicating with the dead seems easy in comparison to the living as he remains removed from his family and problems develop with Julia. When she leaves him to travel around the world and find herself ("An Invisible City"), Ben's loneliness expands and he faces a separate challenge of greater significance.
Now would be a good time to remind you that The Lion is a true story because what happens next could be seen as piling on for dramatic effect. At the age of 28, Scheuer was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma. As with each of the important moments in the story, he picks up a guitar to set the narrative to music, even when his lyrics are as stark as "Tuesday we will biopsy your bones." Despite the fact that the artist is performing in front of us and we know he survives, Scheuer builds the tension musically and visually (with help from big, dark shadows cast on the upstage wall by lighting designer Ben Stanton), implying that he could easily have died from his illness. After his harrowing chemotherapy treatment results in his cure, the feelings of relief and triumph are palpable ("A Golden Castle Town").
Palpable feelings are what The Lion has in spades as Scheuer takes us on this musical journey on his very own yellow brick road. What he learns along the way is not so different from what Dorothy learns, ultimately understanding that the thing that matters most is family. In collaboration with director Sean Daniels, he has produced a score that both moves the story and entertains, in no small measure due to Scheuer's melodious voice and appreciable skill on the six guitars he rotates over the course of the show. In case you're wondering why he uses multiple instruments, each has different tuning to allow him flexibility without having to keep re-tuning from one song to the next. And, strange as it may sound, the guitars are characters in his story, representing who he was at the time he played them. He even keeps one guitar on a stand upstage which is the "understudy" guitar.
Daniels has achieved a coup, opening his inaugural season as MRT's Artistic Director with The Lion as it begins a two-year national tour after highly praised runs in Edinburgh and London and two Off-Broadway productions. Scheuer's autobiographical story is honest and compelling, he is a terrific musician and charming performer, and the lessons he shares are uplifting. But if there's one image that I walked away with from this show, it has to be Benjamin Scheuer sitting center stage with his arms wrapped around his guitar, grinning ear to ear from the sheer joy of making music. That's a helluva note to end on.
The Lion, performances through September 20, 2015, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org. For more information on the tour, visit thelionmusical.com.
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 Supervisor, Dom Ruggiero; Technical Supervision, Mind The Gap; General Management, Maximum Entertainment