Benjamin Scheuer has had his fair share of drama. To avoid spoiling the plot of his one-man show The Lion—which, incidentally, is less of a plot and more just the story of his life— let’s just say he’s taken some serious knocks. But it’s not the dramatic arc that’s so affecting about this New Yorker's tale, but its delivery, which makes for a show that ends up as much more than the sum of its musical parts.
The Lion kicks off with Scheuer’s introduction to music, through a father who makes him a cookie-tin banjo. From there we’re given a chronological version of the life that followed, all the way up to a present that never ceases to engage with its past. And it’s a heart-on-sleeve, fetch-your-hankie kind of past, at that.
Directed by Sean Daniels, The Lion first bared its teeth to audiences at the 2013 Edinburgh and had its American premiere in New York the following year. But even before that city gave its stamp of approval with a New York Times rave, Portland Center Stage’s Chris Coleman had already signed up for a Portland run.
It’s easy to see why. In a town where sincerity is serious currency, Scheuer represents a veritable windfall. But though he’s earnest in his delivery, it’s not at the expense self-awareness and Scheuer brings humor as well as heart to his finely balanced performance. His story is starkly personal, but he strikes enough universal chords to remain one of us, an ordinary guy albeit with extra helpings of charisma. Though his complicated relationship with a strict father takes a particularly sad turn, the generational tensions will be as familiar to many as the gut-thumping shock of heartbreak that also forms part of this coming of age tale.
The cozy set is designed for intimacy: at times it feels like he’s in your living room, at times you’re in his. Yet somehow he also brings you to a London boarding school, a Manhattan apartment, a hospital ward, and a cemetery. It’s a testament to the power of music, and—to put a fine point on it—that’s pretty much what The Lion is all about.
Is it heartachingly sad and at times painfully intimate? Yes. Is it uplifting and redemptive, with messages about family and resilience all swept together with one rousing chord strike? You betcha. After all, the play itself is its own happy ending.
If the tale wasn’t true, The Lion might seem twee, but in Scheuer’s hands and under Daniels's direction it’s got serious impact. The message isn’t subtle, and die-hard cynics should steer clear (along with anyone who has trouble with confessional storytelling or singer-songwriters). But you’ve got to hand it to Scheuer for making a memoir musical that still tips the scale towards entertainment over indulgence.
Scheuer may be more parlour cat than king of the jungle, but maybe that's what makes The Lion so relatable. We can't all be royalty, but maybe we can still be redeemed.
The Lion runs at Portland Center Stage through June 14.