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The Lion

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Benjamin Scheuer
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Many voices—including, on more than one occasion, mine—have lamented the musical's increasing inability to simultaneously engage the brain and the heart, to transcend the limitations of skyrocketing budgets and diminishing influence to once again be intimate and gigantic, tragic and hopeful, and searing and tuneful the way the classic Golden Age titles were. To all such naysayers, and for that matter to everyone else, know that incontrovertible proof of the musical theatre's ongoing artistic supremacy may now be found at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in the form of a genuine knock-'em-dead show, The Lion.

True, it was conceived and written by the same man who is also its sole performer, Benjamin Scheuer. The accompaniment consists of only six guitars, all of which Scheuer also plays himself. There's but a single set (Neil Patel is the designer), which suggests simple locales like a performance loft at a coffee shop or a young child's featureless bedroom. And though the direction (by Sean Daniels) is intense, the staging is not, with Scheuer's sitting and (infrequent) standing constituting what little blocking can be observed.

And none of it matters one whit.

What does matter is that Scheuer has dug into himself in the most trenchant, most sober, and most enchanting way possible to craft a tiny evening that lays bare his singular gifts as both an artist and a man in a way perilously few larger efforts, on Broadway or elsewhere, have been able to manage across the last decade (or probably longer). By the time its 65 minutes are concluded and you've wiped away the tears that will be streaming almost from Scheuer's first strumming of strings, you'll know him—and yourself—better than you ever imagined possible.

Because if what Scheuer has to share are not experiences most people will have had themselves, in its scope and presentation it's as universal as can be. As a boy, Ben idolized his father's impressive guitar skills, which Dad rewarded with a toy banjo made from a cookie container and rubber bands, and which kindled Ben's lifelong love of music. Over time, that event also drove a wedge between Ben and his father, leading to fights, unhappiness, and bitter loss, and to a career for the young man that led him to and away from love, a major brush with mortality, and a respect and need for the family he'd spent so many years ignoring.

Scheuer has expertly woven these elements into a story that, despite being choked with sadness and heartbreak, is never for an instant depressing. It helps that Scheuer peppers his saga with humor that allows for big releases of laughter without disrupting the natural flow of the emotions that surround them, a tension-breaking device that's especially critical in the dark final quarter. And Scheuer the actor contributes vitally to the texture: Wearing tousled hair and a slightly rumpled suit, he's loaded with boy-next-door charm, alternately warm and goofy and haunting, that leave even the most unflattering anecdotes ringing with the comforting encouragement from the brother or best friend you've always wished you had.

Perhaps most important is that the songs are equally organic inhabitants of this universe, sounding as though they could be sung by no other person under no other situation (though he has, for the record, performed many of them with his band, Escapist Papers). Through a scintillating fusion of folk, pop, and rock that imparts hard edges and soft centers alike, Scheuer details his upbringing and tumultuous family life with levity and clear eyes that make his ostensibly average family seem like anything but.

Two of his most ingratiating numbers are about his long-term girlfriend, Julia: "I'll Bet Loving You Would Be Easy" for when they first meet, and "Laugh" for when they've gotten to know each other better ("You make me laugh when you stretch your stretchy pants up to your neck and dance around... You make me laugh with your impression of a friendly pterodactyl's mating sound"). When things get serious, Scheuer also reveals himself a compelling lyrical dramatist: "When This Thing's Over" is a lengthy and captivating musical scene that outlines Ben's defining physical strife, in a rumbling, near-monotonic composition that could not better match his terrified state of mind.

As you might expect, the most affecting songs are those that concern Ben's complex relationship with his father. "Cookie-Tin Banjo" is the lovable introduction to each of them, as well as the bond that would unite them across the decades, and a continuing theme throughout that chart's Ben's progress from childhood to maturity. "Three Little Cubs" and "Weather the Storm" feature equally playful tunes that describe how Dad sees the children he's raising, with the title song, the score's penultimate entry, demonstrating in invigorating (and show-stopping) fashion just how well he succeeded.

That song, like everything else here, has lost none of its arresting power in the seven months since The Lion premiered at City Center Stage II. In fact, that intervening period (which also found Scheuer performing the show in London) has further strengthened its narrative thrust. Ben's journey is even more gradual and subtle now, making the climax even more cathartic than it used to be. Now, when he sings his culminating moral—"I always show my teeth when I am smiling / I only say ‘I love you' when I'm sure / Inside my gentle paws I've got some devastating claws / And I'm learning what it means to really roar," - the revelation cuts deeper than ever.

But when that happens, you feel no pain—only the ecstatic, elevating joy that comes with the understanding of personal truth at its most nakedly honest. Who cares how few other shows succeed at capturing these qualities? They're in full force at The Lion, far and away the best new musical in town.

The Lion
Through March 29
Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix