The artistry and critical success of his solo musical play The Lion seems like a fairly safe guarantee that writer-performer Benjamin Scheuer will soon be back with something new even if the run of The Lion at the Geffen Playhouse is — as billed — the performer's farewell engagement after two years of touring. Given the coffeehouse-friendly, "here's my story" vibe of the work, it would hardly be surprising if Scheuer injected a little bit of farewell banter into a work that is already so much about endings and new beginnings.
He doesn't, and The Lion certainly requires no extra poignancy. As directed by Sean Daniels and performed by Scheuer, who opts for wry stoicism and a knowing grin over higher emotions at every opportunity, The Lion is funny and sad, heartbreaking and life-affirming all wrapped into a folksy package.
From adolescence, Scheuer idolized the guitar-playing of his mathematician father, Rick, whose premature death when Ben was 13 (after the two had fought) opened up an emotional chasm in the boy's life. Ben grows up, moves from England to New York, falls in love, and isolates himself from his mother and two younger brothers. As his music deepens, the rest of his life falls apart. Then Scheuer develops cancer and his perspective changes in a big way.
Wearing a blue suit and tie that are almost overly stylish, the thirtysomething storyteller recounts his ups and downs via 15 songs (and one reprise) that are as musically deft as they are dramatically compelling. Scheuer shares the stage with three stools, three microphone stands and — count 'em — six guitars, nearly all of which he picks up and plays. Though he can shred any of these instruments, Scheuer's singing is thoughtful, rarely ferocious.
A lyric like "Damn you for dying when we were in a fight" is tossed out matter-of-factly, not howled. The frisky and playful love song "Laugh," written at the direction of his girlfriend Julia packs one kind of romantic punch while the bluesier "Lovin' You Will Be Easy" taps a different strain of the same emotion. With numbers like "Three Little Cubs" and "Weather the Storm" (which serves as "The Lion's unofficial anthem"), Scheuer reaches into his childhood. Whether or not you have siblings or have experienced the loss of a parent, you are right there with this singer.
But only up to a point. "You're the loneliest person I know," Julia tells Ben, just before she leaves him, and her assessment isn't far off. Indeed, even in a cozy, private-feeling venue like the Geffen's Audrey Skirball Kenis stage, surrounded by an audience that balances somewhere between being mesmerized and on the verge of tears, there is something closed off about this performer. Scheuer likely realizes this; his performance is no plea for sympathy. The man has already climbed his mountain.
Scheuer has talked about another performer taking over The Lion, someone who (regardless of race, age, or gender) must be able to handle the piece's challenging guitar demands. It's an optimistic vision, certainly, that a person exists who can both play these songs and effectively tap into the pain and joy of a life he or she did not live. But as inevitable as farewells must be, here's betting that sometime down the line, Scheuer may give The Lion another airing. Maybe he will experience the pull to reconnect with what drew him to music to begin with.
Let's hope so. For now, The Lion shows it claws for a few more precious weeks.
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