I am always wary of the one man show. Especially a one man musical performance. But I heard this one was pretty good and that it had some international acclaim, so of course I went.
Throughout the first few numbers I kept wondering to myself I was listening to a true story. Maybe he's just a really good storyteller, I thought.
By about the fourth number, I knew that there was no way this could not be a true story. Wow.
In The Lion, Benjamin Scheuer very honestly, openly, seamlessly, emotionally, acoustically and electrically tells us his incredible life journey. What we see on stage is Ben and about seven different guitars. No sheet music to be found, just this amazingly cute guy and his acoustic guitar, opening the front page to the story of his life that started with a "Cookie-tin Banjo" crafted for him by his father. I feel like a child listening to his story, of his painful yet beautiful relationship with his dad, his struggling to cope with his dad's passing, the sights, sounds and romance of young adulthood New York, battling cancer and his personal realization of what family is. I feel like a child because I never once find myself guessing what might happen, it just falls out into the room as we hang on his every word. Ben's admitting to never having trained as an actor at the post show discussion had more than a few people gasping in surprise; major props to director Sean Daniels who had us listening there with open ears and eyes from the edges of our seats.
The musical variety within the piece was beautifully pieced together to present an array of musical styles and sounds while weaving together Ben's compelling journey. What this man can do with a guitar pretty much blew my mind and I will DEFINITELY be giving his studio recordings a listen on Spotify (DISCLAIMER: I actually have it playing right now) (DISCLAIMER: I have been listening to it on repeat for days). At the post show conversation, he mentioned that even though this is the final series of performances in his nearly three and a half year world tour, producers of the show have considered continuing it further with a new actor in the role of Ben. "I don't care the gender of whoever plays me, I don't care what their race is," he told us, "I would love to see that, who plays me and what they bring to the story. They just have to be able to play the guitar for this show." He went on to tell us that he had practiced just the opening riff for the first number for hours a day for weeks before being able to play it correctly. He told us that initially the show had been much harder for him musically, as he had written music that was very challenging, almost too challenging for him. Three and a half years later, he can play it while having a conversation, it's second nature. So, it's hard to imagine anyone else mastering this music, paired with the emotional connection to it, in the way that he has done. To get an idea of the sound, it was almost like Glen Hansard performing a Jason Robert Brown show with a few cameos by Norbert Leo Butz and some nods to Spring Awakening, in the best way possible. The opening sequence even reminded me a little of the sounds of Bela Fleck. Throughout the performance I'm sitting there mesmerized, and in between beats thinking that he should compose music for films; this is amazing.
Ben paints a very clear, musical picture of what it is like to to love a family member, even when they treat you poorly. As a child he does not really try to understand why his father is so good to him sometimes, giving him the greatest gift he could ever ask for, music, and then go ahead and berate, condescend and belittle him for seemingly inexplicable reasons. He explores the love/hate relationships that lie within our closest family ties. Through his story, he points out that we intrinsically we go on loving them. What this show changed in me is my accepting of that. Sometimes I'll be harsh with myself, thinking, how can I go on loving them when they're "bad" like this? Sometimes we can't help but love, and that is a good thing. Because maybe they need our love in that moment.
I wasn't sure if I should share the only thing I didn't love about this show...because it is personal and subjective...and overall I really do like this show and was absolutely moved by it (definitely shed some tears during the number where dead dad gives mom a phone call)... but here goes. The show gave me a little bit of social angst. Because I feel like this was little bit of a #richboyproblems story thread. Yes, the struggles are universal. We all deal with death, depression, illness, broken hearts and hopefully the healing power of music. But, most people's families are not able to move abroad to the UK after their father's death, for no reason, and then send their kids to boarding school. I didn't get the feeling that the mother had any type of career, and as the father was a Harvard and Columbia graduate, there was probably some life insurance/family trust looking out for them. In the beginning of the play Ben is wearing this adorable blue suit and gradually removes pieces of it throughout the play until he's barefoot in his pants and shirt only. I thought this might be symbolic of sheding a uniform his father might have worn and slowly learning to "play guitar like me," instead of like his father, whom he yearned to play like from a young age. We never hear about Ben acquiring any type of income while living in New York with is girlfriend, where they can seemingly see the (Brooklyn?) bridge from their bedroom. In his battle against cancer the struggle lies in the physical and not the financial. His mother and brothers move back from England to take care of him in Manhattan. I still don't know what they do for work, but maybe that is the point. After beating cancer he has the luxury of retreating for seven weeks to "some golden castle town" where he is able to spend time with himself privately, gain back his health, hair and natural body weight. As a result he begins composing music for this show and three and a half years later he's traveled the world telling his story. Where is the money coming from? I'm making a lot of assumptions here; there is so much I don't know. Maybe there wasn't room in the music to articulate on these factors. By leaving them out, I personally am thinking about them more. But I would guess that most of the upper middle class white audience at the Geffen Playhouse is not. If I was raised in a similar socioeconomic level as Ben, I'm sure none of this would have even crossed my mind. But I was not, so it did.
Aside from THAT, I'm confident this show will move you in some capacity. If you like NPR, you will probably like this show. And honestly, just writing this review cannot express how essential and powerful Ben's music is to telling this story. Please see for yourself.
Benjamin Scheuer will be performing The Lion at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through February 19th. New performances have just been added and this might be your last chance to see it anywhere.