The Lion Finds Its Roar in Long Wharf Production
By Amy J. Barry
A well-written play based on a true story is almost always compelling, but a well-written autobiographical play that takes you from the past into the immediate present...in which its young narrator/hero has recently survived the unimaginable and stands before you to tell the story...well, that’s quite breathtaking.
I’m talking about The Lion, written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer, and directed by Sean Daniels, on Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II. This beautiful and heartbreaking coming of age story is told through music and lyrics, actually six guitars played (individually!) by the accomplished 33-year-old musician, as well as through spoken narrative.
This new work began as a musical called The Bridge, performed at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as a series of autobiographical songs. It morphed into a transformative piece for both actor and audience as a short one-act (70 min.) play with connected autobiographical songs and storyline that became an off Broadway hit last winter and is now on national tour through 2016.
The play is built around a difficult relationship between a son and a father; a father who gave his son the gift of music but not the gift of unconditional love.
Ben essentially takes us on a musical journey -- folk, rock, and his own eclectic style -- from boyhood to manhood, honing his skills along the way.
The engaging story begins to unfold with the sweet, lyrical song, “Cookie Tin Banjo” about Ben’s first instrument his father gave him, made from a homemade toy, and how “he showed me the G chord and I never looked back.”
But there was a darker, egomaniacal side to his father, a brilliant mathematician, who punished Ben for being poor at math. After his father forbids him to go on a high school band trip to Washington, DC because of a bad test score, Ben writes his father an angry letter. His father soon dies quite suddenly, of a mysterious ailment and 13-year-old Ben, as any magical thinking young boy would, blames himself for his father’s death.
This shapes the years that follow, his failed relationships, his alienation from his own family, but in-between there are also lots of humorous and joyful moments that are all fed by his love of music, the one consistent thing in his life.
Ben is consumed by his unresolved anger, guilt, sadness, contracting a form of cancer that literally eats away at his bones.
His horrible ordeal is captured in mournful, moody music, but then, I’m not giving anything away, if I tell you he beats all odds and beats the cancer because of course, here he is healthy and vibrant and very much alive on stage, singing his heart out.
Ben makes peace with his father in another letter written all these years later.
“Dear Dad: I’ve carried all this guilt with me. Now I’ll need to set it free. I forgive you all the things you did wrong. You were a man, not a saint. You didn’t want me to play like you all those years ago. Dear Dad, I’ve learned to play like me.”
The powerhouse ending theme song, “The Lion,” utilizes Scheuer’s spectacular guitar skills, describing how he finally came into his own as a musician, as a human being:
“I always show my teeth when I am smiling.
I always 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.”
The Lion is a play about how deeply and negatively our unsolved mysteries and distorted perceptions can effect our mental and physical health and yet the miracle, live on the Long Wharf stage, is how love and forgiveness -- and music -- can turn it all around.
As cathartic and healing as performing this play must be for Scheuer, it is equally brimming with hope and optimism for its audience -- a refreshing break in these doom-and-gloom times.
The Lion is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Feb. 7. For tickets, call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com