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The Lion

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Benjamin Scheuer
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Music's ability to articulate the world around us is well documented, but it can be easy to forget the deeper potential it carries. The right tune, played at the right time, by the right person, can link us to them in ways as total as they are intangible, beyond measures of earthly reason or common sense. This idea is doubly central to The Lion, the superb new one-man musical by Benjamin Scheuer that just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II. In the story Scheuer spins, not only does music literally and figuratively save a life, it also glues together pieces of a broken family, unites a boy with the father he loses at a too-young age, and makes you an integral part of one of the most magical musicals the contemporary theatre has produced in ages.

What else could describe the bewitching stagecraft that makes a mere (if transfixing) 65 minutes seem epic, and humanity's biggest issues utterly intimate? Rest assured, though, that the magic at work is of the timeless, old-fashioned variety that emanates strictly from the abundant gifts and likability of its writer and star. Seated on a simple, bare set (by Neil Patel) and joined only by a half-dozen guitars of various styles and designs ranging from acoustic to electric, Scheuer conjures his glittering realm of imagination entirely and only by telling his tale and making you his most personal friend and confidant—a role that, after only a few minutes, you wouldn't trade for anything.

It's clear from the opening seconds, too, that this is a uniquely felt evening, as the opening number is good enough to anchor almost any other show. In the gently folk "Cookie-Tin Banjo," Scheuer details how his father recognized little Ben's love for music by building him a banjo from a cookie tin, rubber bands, and an old necktie. They jam together for a couple of years until Ben outgrows it and Dad buys him a real guitar, which he then teaches him how to play. This establishes and reinforces the bond between boy and father, tinged with both love for the present and regret when growing up means giving it up. The affection and conflict between boy and man, as well as Ben's yearning to both be just like his father and find his own way, is ingrained before a single word of dialogue is spoken.

Not that Ben and Dad always have it easy. Ben longs for a music career and to play just like Dad, but expressing that desire to him drives a wedge between the two, and the adolescent Ben's indifference to academics (his father is a mathematician) leads to an all-out fight and the silent treatment—during which Dad falls ill and eventually dies. Unable to express his true feelings, Ben, like his family, is thrown into chaos: He must grow up faster, and probably not better, than he'd envisioned. And when Ben must face down people whose memories of his father are far better than his own, inner and outer resentments build until it's no longer possible for him to know—or even respect—Dad at all.

This event reverberates powerfully and painfully through Ben's adolescence and adulthood, affecting his schooling, his long-term girlfriend Julia, and eventually his health, as he's diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer that has an unpromising survival rate. Staying alive and optimistic while fighting the encroaching demons of his own creation is a Herculean task the young man, now on the cusp of 30, might not be up for. Each of these occurrences is beautifully observed, with Ben's perspectives on life and death refracted through his ever changing opinion of his father and represented by slowly cycling through those guitars, each of which conveys a specific meaning, until there's nothing left for him to do but accept the man he's been forced to become.

Dark though its edges may be, The Lion is always edifying rather than depressing. Much credit must go to director Sean Daniels, who masterfully orchestrates the mood. But Scheuer's songs do even more. They're all truly wonderful, capturing a sprawling spectrum of emotions and experiences, from the unfettered dreams of youth ("When We Get Big," about Ben and his brothers dreaming of being the Beatles), the terrifying serenity of mortality, the playfulness of love ("I'll Bet Loving You Would Be Easy," and "Laugh," about the myriad imperfections of Julia that Ben so adores, both lilt with romantic abandon), the revivifying allure of New York, and, naturally, the losses on which Ben has built his life.

None of these compositions rings fake, self-consciously theatrical, or inserted for effect. Each brings you closer to Ben, with the cumulative effect that you come to know him as well as your own brother or best friend. His disarming humor and clear-voiced candor ring as private enough, but the final section of the show, in which Ben sings three back-to-back songs about all the ways his father has influenced him, is wrenching, a cry for help and acceptance from a man who never knew he needed them until it was too late. Scheuer has escorted you so far inside of Ben, helped you come to know him so well, that by the sob-inducing finale he's obliterated any boundary between you and him: He sings as much for you as to you.

Scheuer is incredible in the ease with which he accomplishes all this, effortlessly transitioning from the wide-eyed child to the disintegrating man, and delineating with a grudging change of vocal timbre a revolution of thought and spirit that conveys decades worth of personal development in seconds. His lyrics are quiet and touching, married to melodies that derive from American folk, rock, Broadway, and his own, resolutely today sound with equal efficacy. His singing voice is firm and accurate, more than compensating in its conversational warmth what it may technically lack in "legit" robustness.

Not that anything discernible is missing from the proceedings. Scheuer and his show communicate so openly and so intensely that they've created what is at once the biggest, littlest, and best new in town. As a theatrical coming-of-age chronicle, it's engrossing; for its sheer elegance at elevating the everyday to the extraordinary, it takes techniques and ambitions similar to those found in Once and amplifies them several hundred times; as a top-to-bottom character study, I cannot name its recent equal.

It does, after all, concern that most sweeping and microscopic of subjects: a man discovering who he really is. That's what the title song is about, by the way, in its tracing Ben's father's metaphor for the so-called king of the beasts who struggles to define his own existence. By the time Ben sings it, though, he's come to understand it all too well. "I always show my teeth when I am smiling," he sings. "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." Maybe Ben and Scheuer are. But The Lion has no trouble making itself heard and its impact felt in the furthest reaches of your soul and heart.

The Lion
Through July 13
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
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