There have been many notable plays about fathers and sons. Strindberg’s Fathers and Sons and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night come to mind. Yet none are quite as powerful as the one-man autobiographical musical, The Lion, written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer.
The piece has won a bucket of awards in New York and London and received rave reviews for its two off-Broadway runs and London productions. Some have called it the best new musical, and have even declared that many of the songs are hummable.
But this is where I take issue. The play, if you can call it that — and I really can’t — seems more an extended monologue with music. The writing of the spoken monologue is riveting and keeps you spellbound. The music, in the genre of folk, has bold and inventive moments. But the lyrics are a mixed bag. Some are fun, some touching, but they’re often mundane.
Scheuer as a talent plays master storyteller well and, as a guitarist, he produces soulful, highly skilled and memorable sounds. As a singer, his particular brand of “talk-singing” takes getting used to. But once you have done that, his story of courage and growth grips you and doesn’t let go.
This unique piece of theatre, shaped beautifully by director Sean Daniels, not only speaks from the heart, but from the gut. This material, very relatable to everyone, strikes many a familiar chord.
At the Old Globe in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Neil Patel’s lovely wood-toned set features carvings that could be found on hand-made guitars. Subtle touches set the tone for this enigmatic endeavor.
Scheuer’s unassuming, folksy manner works well for most of the songs that lead us into his deep and impressive tale. “The Lion” song is very touching and becomes a recurring theme in the production. Also of note, the charming “Cookie Tin Banjo” as well as “You Make Me Laugh.”
In reference to the father/son motif, Scheuer’s father was apparently revered if not celebrated by many people, but he was very stern and mean to his son. After his untimely death when Ben was in his early teens, the son had mixed feelings of guilt and anger, which fueled many of his songs.
Eventually he came to realize that the most wonderful thing his Dad had done was to give him the gift of music, just about the only pleasure they shared. During his formative years while Dad was still alive, Ben always wanted to “learn to play like you, Dad.” One of the last words of this extended monologue becomes, “I finally learned to play like me.”
1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
The Lion runs through October 30 at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.