Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Told through a series of 15 songs and brief bits of interconnecting dialogue, The Lion was inspired by composer Benjamin Scheuer's life story. Scheuer wrote the book and score and was the original star of the musical, appearing in more than 500 performances in several cities as well as Off-Broadway. The star of last summer's Southwark Playhouse production in London, Max Alexander-Taylor, in featured in this local production, which runs through November 6 before moving to Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park, with performances from November 12-December 4.
The Lion tells the story of Ben, who is about to turn 14 when we first meet him. Ben was fascinated by his father and wanted to learn to play the guitar just like him. His father made him a banjo of his own out of a cookie tin, with rubber band strings and an old neck tie for a strap, and Ben would play along with him. However, Ben's perfectionist father, who suffers from depression and is prone to angry outbursts, causes a rift in Ben's admiration for him and when a family tragedy happens, it changes Ben's whole world. As Ben constantly struggles to come to terms with his turbulent past and is faced with his own mortality, he realizes he must find the courage and strength to weather the storm.
Ben's journey over the one-act, 75-minute show is told almost entirely through music, and Scheuer's musical compositions are very strong, with melodic hooks and lyrics that are infused with clarity and emotion. Max Alexander-Taylor is wonderful as Ben. He has exceptional guitar playing skills, a warm singing voice, and a wonderful and direct connection to the audience. While this may not be his own story, Alexander-Taylor has such a clear understanding of the character that you believe he is Ben.
Artistic Director Sean Daniels, who helped shape and directed the original production, is aided here by co-director Alex Stenhouse. Together they manage, with a soft-touch, to let Scheuer's story unfold simply and directly through moments that come across as extraordinarily honest. As Alexander-Taylor moves around Simon Kenny's lovely yet simple set, with five guitars set on guitar stands in front of the mirrored back wall and with what seems like an infinite number of shade-less lamps of various heights and shapes strewn across the stage with some also out in the audience, he takes the audience along on this journey like a close friend telling you about their life. It's a beautiful performance and a moving story that shows how one man, alone, on a fairly bare stage with just a guitar can tell a story about how an innocent and eager child can turn into a confused and sorrowful adult who longs for closure and clarity.
While it may not be your story, and you may or may not have experienced or suffered through some of the family drama or trauma that Scheuer did, you'll most likely find an intimate connection to the piece and find new understanding about life, your relationships with your family, and yourself. The Lion is a modern folk musical that's heartbreaking, inspiring, and very moving. It's also a haunting musical, just as the events in Ben's past continued to haunt him.
The Lion runs through November 6, 2022, at Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.arizonatheatre.org or call 602-256-6995.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Benjamin Scheuer
*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States