As the grand finale of its 2015-2016 season, City Theatre’s latest Main Stage production The Lion invites Pittsburgh audience onto a soulful journey with a heart-warming roar. Originally premiered Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014 and followed by a critically-acclaimed world tour, the show already welcomed a full house just one week before the official opening night.
Featuring its original creator, singer, and songwriter Benjamin Scheuer, this one-man autobiographical musical starts with a simple phrase, “My father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs”, and then immediately dives right into a kaleidoscopic memory of family, love, and survival. As the music goes on, the narrative also gets more intense and dramatic, but with Mr. Scheuer’s rich melody, poetic lyrics, and exceptional guitar-wielding, the storytelling is always engaging and the emotional connection never stops.
Beginning with a reminiscing song about his old “Cookie-tin banjo”, Mr. Scheuer, or “Ben” in the story, first introduced to us his father, the man who gave him the gift of music, and essentially the center character figure of the show. And then bit by bit, line by line, we started to put together a bigger family portrait including his mother and two brothers, and learned about his childhood dreams, wonderings, and a specific dispute with his father which later led to one of the biggest unresolved guilts and regrets of his life. Then as little Ben outgrew his homemade toy, left his family and moved to New York, we sailed further down the timeline with him and met Julia, a girl who would make Ben laugh and write adorable love songs like “Lovin’ You Will Be Easy”. Finally the “happily ever after” fairytale was brutally broken again by devastating news and we were then thrown right back to the reality, looking at the lowest and most vulnerable stage of Ben’s life. The show eventually ends with an inspiring note, and when the title song “The Lion” was sung, everyone was on their feet cheering for the return of the king to the Pride Rock.
Highly praised by Broadway composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) in a recent Dramatists Guild event held at City Theatre, the music and lyrics of The Lion are the true blood and bone of the story and deserve all the applauses. Fueled with a folk tonality, Mr. Scheuer brilliantly transcends the boundaries of traditional solo performances by playing and switching in between a total of six different guitars during the whole show and hence adds another layer of variety and complexity to the overall sound. Along the storyline, each guitar would “come in” at a specific point with a special history and add more character and distinct qualities to the music, and with the change of the narrative style, the compositional genre also ranges from hauntingly beautiful acoustic ballads (“Weather the Storm”, “Invisible Cities”) all the way to exciting electric Rock ‘n Roll (“Saint Rick”). Occasionally some lyrics are sung in a parlando fashion, but overall the texts are full of rich emotions and nostalgic flavour. In the program Mr. Scheuer points out that one of the best songwriting advice he’s ever received is “to write a good song, write what you don’t other people to know about you. But if you want to write a great song, write what you don’t want to know about yourself.” And that’s exactly what he did–the balance between raw, even unsettling details and metaphorical analogies in the lyrics perfectly captured the light and shadow of this courageous expedition, and the end result is just powerful and honest storytelling with truthful, unadulterated emotion.
Because of the intimate performance setting and the nature of autobiographical conversation, certain times you may forget the fact that you’re watching a show and feel like you are just listening to an old friend talking about his life while jamming on a bunch of guitars. And that traceless acting is exactly where Mr. Scheuer’s charismatic personality comes in. Presented with genuine passion and a goofy big heart, each scene eventually felt like a deja vu and each moment felt deeply personal on stage. And even sometimes when a certain patron accidentally broke the tension of this magical experience in the theatre with a sneeze or worse, a ringing cell phone, Mr. Scheuer’s improvised story incorporation and heartfelt music takes you back in.
Directed by Sean Daniels, the show reflects the rise and fall of Ben’s transformative journey seamlessly with a narrative staging–from time to time Mr. Scheuer might loosen his tie, sit on a different chair, or take off his shoes, but each momentous transition ultimately strengthens the tension of the drama and the resonance with the audience. Designed by Ben Stanton, the lighting of the show masterfully projects the color and texture of each song and scene onto the canvas of space and is a storyteller itself. And that only got heightened by Neil Patel’s gorgeous set in which a concept of reborn and revisit echoes the flames of time.
Just like how Ben sings it in The Lion, I, too, “only say I love you when I’m sure”. And when you go to City Theatre and see this 2015 Drama Desk Awards Best Solo Performance yourself, I bet you will want to sing and roar and say “lovin’ you will be easy” too.
Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. The Lion opens Friday May 20th, for tickets and more information about the show and the free song writing workshop on May 28th, click here.