Gentle Paws: A Review of The Lion

By Brooks Appelbaum, Special to The Shoreline Times

Ben Scheuer’s musical memoir, The Lion, directed by Sean Daniels and playing at the Long Wharf through February 7, begins with a sweet song that references a seemingly simple and uncomplicated childhood. A father plays folk songs to his adoring son and makes him a “cookie tin banjo” so little Ben can play too. However, despite the show’s two harrowing events, this 70-minute coming-of-age story is (like its opening number) just a little too sweet and familiar. The central metaphor of the young lion learning to roar is not an original one, and Scheuer’s songwriting in general doesn’t do justice to his redoubtable skill as a guitarist.

As we learn, Scheuer’s growing up centers on a father whose kindness mysteriously gives way to sudden and unexpected acts of rage. Loss, illness, and ultimate strength make up the dramatic arc: “Ben” is a sadder but wiser young man by the end, and his musical talents have played a large role in his healing. To reveal more would be to spoil the surprises that give the story its punch. Suffice it to say, however, that this piece, though moving, cannot rival the profound, stunningly unusual, and remarkably written tales that have arisen in this time when memoirs have become ubiquitous. Julia Sweeney’s God Said Ha!; Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club; and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life come immediately to mind.

Certainly, Scheuer’s method -- one man’s story through song, performed on six guitars -- is wonderfully new. And as a presence, Scheuer is winning. Springing onto the spare stage dressed in a natty cream-colored suit, sporting a mop of curls (this detail becomes important to the plot), and possessed of an open and expressive face, Scheuer immediately projects the sense that he’s already your friend, eager to spend his time with you.

He is also unpretentious, but this quality turns out to be double-edged. On the one hand, Scheuer’s gentle and honest persona draws us to him. On the other hand, though, in order to burnish this tale and make it bruise our hearts and challenge our minds, Scheuer needs to be larger-than-life: to deploy charisma.

Scheuer’s writing also needs more dimension and depth. Though a few of the songs are humorous, tuneful, and/or touching, they could all use sharpening of both melody and lyrics. He is at his best in his self-deprecating asides, as in, “I was a very dramatic fourteen-year old.” Generally, though, The Lion is more pleasant than powerful.

One wishes that Sean Daniels, the director, could have pushed Scheuer to mine his material more deeply. However, Daniels has left his mark by creating, with marvelous designers, the lovely and evocative world in which The Lion takes place.

Scenic Designer Neil Pater has made the set reminiscent of both a coffee shop and a home. The six guitars make up a pleasing semi-circular shape, and the over-stuffed chair -- the only chair onstage other than Scheuer’s -- indicate beautifully Scheuer’s mother’s presence and formal personality. A radiator and a three-paneled wooden door warm Scheuer’s family tale.

Ben Stanton expertly lights the textured walls to transform the mood with dramatic color, and Leon Rothenberg has controlled the sound so that it both fills the theatre and every word is clear, including -- kudos, Mr. Scheuer -- every final consonant. Clothes are important to Scheuer: he describes them as his “armor,” and Jennifer Caprio has clearly done her job as Costume Consultant.

So, should you see The Lion? I am in the minority, certainly, in wishing that the piece had a sharper bite and a sharper wit. Every major critic has praised The Lion, and Scheuer has won numerous awards for music, lyrics, and for this piece specifically. If you expect theater to challenge and deeply move you, this is not your show. However, if you are content to spend an evening with in immensely charming guy and are interested in a new form of memoir, or musical, The Lion is your ticket.

The Lion runs through February 7. Tickets are available by calling the Long Wharf Theatre Box Office (203-787-4282) or visiting the website at The Long Wharf Theatre is located at 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven.

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